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IMPROVISATIONS 



By William Carlos Williams 

The Tempers 
Al Que Quiere ! 
Kora in Hell 




Drawing by Stuait Davis 



KORA IN HELL: 
IMPROVISATIONS 



BY 

WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS 




BOSTON 

THE FOUR SEAS COMPANY 
1920 



N 

>*i* 

Copyright, 1920, by 
THE FOUR SEAS COMPANY 



The Four Seas Press 
Boston, Mass., U. S. A. 



PS 3 S4 5 



KL? 



TO FLOSSIE 



PROLOGUE 



PROLOGUE 



THE RETURN OF THE SUN 

Her voice was like rose-fragrance 

waltzing in the wind. 
She seemed a shadow, stained with 

shadow colors, 
Swimming through waves of sunlight . . . 

The sole precedent I can find for the broken style of my 
prologue is Longinus on the Sublime and that one far-fetched. 

When my mother was in Rome on that rare journey forever 
to be remembered, she lived in a small pension near the Pincio 
gardens. The place had been chosen by my brother as one 
notably easy of access, being in a quarter free from confusion 
of traffic, on a street close to the park and furthermore the tram 
to the American Academy passed at the corner. Yet never did 
my mother go out but she was in fear of being lost. By turning 
to the left when she should have turned right, actually she did 
once manage to go so far astray that it was nearly an hour before 
she extricated herself from the strangeness of every new vista 
and found a landmark. 

There has always been a disreputable man of picturesque 
personality associated with this lady. Their relations have been 
marked by the most rollicking spirit of comradeship. Now it has 
been William, former sailor in Admiral Dewey s fleet at Manila, 
then Tom O Rourck who has come to her to do odd jobs and to 
be cared for more or less when drunk or ill, their Penelope. 
William would fall from the grapearbor much to my mother s 
amusement and delight and to his blustering discomfiture or he 
would stagger to the back door nearly unconscious from bad 
whiskey. There she would serve him with very hot and very 
strong coffee, then put him to scrubbing the kitchen floor into 
his suddy-pail pouring half a bottle of ammonia which would 

[9] 



io PROLOGUE 



make the man gasp and water at the eyes as he worked and 
became sober. 

She has always been incapable of learning from benefit or 
disaster. If a man cheat her she will remember that man with a 
violence that I have seldom seen equaled but so far as that could 
have an influence on her judgment of the next man or woman, 
she might be living in Eden. And indeed she is, an impoverished, 
ravished Eden but one indestructible as the imagination itself. 
Whatever is before her is sufficient to itself and so to be valued. 
Her meat though more delicate in fiber is of a kind with that of 
Villon and La Grosse Margot: 

Vente, gresle, gelle, j ai mon pain cuit! 

Carl Sandburg sings a negro cotton picker s song of the bol 
weevil. Verse after verse tells what they would do to the insect. 
They propose to place it in the sand, in hot ashes, in the river, and 
other unlikely places but the bol weevil s refrain is always: 
"That ll be ma HOME ! That ll be ma HOOME !" 

My mother is given over to frequent periods of great depres 
sion being as I believe by nature the most light-hearted thing in 
the world. But there comes a grotesque turn to her talk, a 
macabre anecdote concerning some dream, a passionate statement 
about death, which elevates her mood without marring it, some 
times in a most startling way. 

Looking out at our parlor window one day I said to her: 
"We see all the shows from here, don t we, all the weddings and 
funerals?" (They had been preparing a funeral across the street, 
the undertaker was just putting on his overcoat.) She replied: 
"Funny profession that, burying the dead people. I should think 
they wouldn t have any delusions of life left." W. Oh yes, it s 
merely a profession. M. Hm. And how they study it! They 
say sometimes people look terrible and they come and make them 
look fine. They push things into their mouths ! (Realistic ges 
ture) W. Mama! M. Yes, when they haven t any teeth. 

By some such dark turn at the end she raises her story out 
of the commonplace: "Look at that chair, look at it! (The 
plasterers had just left) If Mrs. J. or Mrs. D. saw that they 
would have a fit." W. Call them in, maybe it will kill them. 
M. But they re not near as bad as that woman, you know, her 
husband was in the chorus, has a little daughter Helen. Mrs. 



PROLOGUE ii 



B. yes. She once wanted to take rooms here. I didn t want her. 
They told me : Mrs. Williams, I heard you re going to have Mrs. 
B. She is particular. She said so herself. Oh no ! Once she 
burnt all her face painting under the sink. 

Thus seeing the thing itself without forethought or after 
thought but with great intensity of perception my mother loses 
her bearings or associates with some disreputable person or trans 
lates a dark mood. She is a creature of great imagination. I 
might say this is her sole remaining quality. She is a despoiled, 
moulted castaway but by this power she still breaks life between 
her fingers. 

Once when I was taking lunch with Walter Arensberg at a 
small place on 63rd St. I asked him if he could state what the 
more modern painters were about, those roughly classed at that 
time as "cubists" : Gleisze, Man Ray, Demuth, Du Champs all of 
whom were then in the city. He replied by saying that the only 
way man differed from every other creature was in his ability to 
improvise novelty and, since the pictorial artist was under dis 
cussion, anything in paint that is truly new, truly a fresh creation 
is good art. Thus according to Du Champs, who was Arensberg s 
champion at the time, a stained glass window that had fallen out 
and lay more or less together on the ground was of far greater 
interest than the thing conventionally composed in situ. 

We returned to Arensberg s sumptuous studio where he gave 
further point to his remarks by showing me what appeared to be 
the original of Du Champs famous, Nude Descending a Staircase. 
But this, he went on to say, is a full-sized photographic print of 
the first picture with many new touches by Du Champs himself 
and so by the technique of its manufacture as by other means it 
is a novelty! 

Led on by these enthusiasms Arensberg has been an inde 
fatigable worker for the yearly salon of the Society of Independ 
ent Artists, Inc. I remember the warmth of his description of a 
pilgrimage to the home of that old Boston hermit who watched 
over by a forbidding landlady (evidently in his pay) paints the 
cigar-box-cover-like nudes upon whose fingers he presses actual 
rings with glass jewels from the five and ten cent store. 

I wish Arensberg had my opportunity for prying into jaded 
households where the paintings of Mama s and Papa s flowertime 
still hang on the walls. I propose that Arensberg be commis- 



12 PROLOGUE 



sioned by the Independent Artists to scour the country for the 
abortive paintings of those men and women who without master 
or method have evolved perhaps two or three unusual creations 
in their early years. I would start the collection with a painting 
I have by a little English woman, A. E. Kerr, 1906, that in its 
unearthly gaiety of flowers and sobriety of design possesses ex 
actly that strange freshness a spring day approaches without 
attaining, an expansion of April, a thing this poor woman found 
too costly for her possession she could not swallow it as the 
niggers do diamonds in the mines. Carefully selected these queer 
products might be housed to good effect in some unpretentious 
exhibition chamber across the city from the Metropolitan Museum 
of Art. In the anteroom could be hung perhaps photographs of 
prehistoric rock-paintings and etchings on horn : galloping bisons 
and stags, the hind feet of which have been caught by the artist 
in such a position that from that time until the invention of the 
camera obscura, a matter of 6000 years or more, no one on earth 
had again depicted that most delicate and expressive posture of 
running. 

The amusing controversy between Arensberg and Du Champs 
on one side, and the rest of the hanging committee on the other as 
to whether the porcelain urinal was to be admitted to the Palace 
Exhibition of 1917 as a representative piece of American Sculp 
ture should not be allowed to slide into oblivion. 

One day Du Champs decided that his composition for that 
day would be the first thing that struck his eye in the first 
hardware store he should enter. It turned out to be a pickaxe 
which he bought and set up in his studio. This was his composi 
tion. Together with Mina Loy and a few others Du Champs and 
Arensberg brought out the paper, The Blind Man, to which Rob 
ert Carlton Brown with his vision of suicide by diving from a high 
window of the Singer Building contributed a few poems. 

In contradistinction to their south, Marianne Moore s state 
ment to me at the Chatham parsonage one afternoon my wife 
and I were just on the point of leaving sets up a north: My 
work has come to have just one quality of value in it : I will not 
touch or have to do with those things which I detest. In this 
austerity of mood she finds sufficient" freedom for the play she 
chooses. 

Of all those writing poetry in America at the time she was 
here Marianne Moore was the only one Mina Loy feared. By 



PROLOGUE 13 



divergent virtues these two women have achieved freshness of 
presentation, novelty, freedom, break with banality. 

When Margaret Anderson published my first improvisations 
Ezra Pound wrote me one of his hurried letters in which he urged 
me to give some hint by which the reader of good will might come 
at my intention. 

Before Ezra s permanent residence in London, on one of his 
trips to America brought on I think by an attack of jaundice 
he was glancing through some book of my father s. "It is not 
necessary," he said, "to read everything in a book in order to speak 
intelligently of it. Don t tell everybody I said so," he added. 

During this same visit my father and he had been reading 
arid discussing poetry together. Pound has always liked my fath 
er. "I of course like your Old Man and I have drunk his Gold- 
wasser." They were hot for an argument that day. My parent 
had been holding forth in downright sentences upon my own 
"idle nonsense" when he turned and became equally vehement 
concerning something Ezra had written: what in heaven s name 
Ezra meant by "jewels" in a verse that had come between them. 
These jewels, rubies, sapphires, amethysts and what not, Pound 
went on to explain with great determination and care, were the 
backs of books as they stood on a man s shelf. "But why in 
heaven s name don t you say so then?" was my father s triumph 
ant and crushing rejoinder. 

The letter: . . . God knows I have to work hard 
enough to escape, not propagande, but getting centered 
in propagande. And America? What the h 1 do you 
a blooming foreigner know about the place. Your pere 
only penetrated the edge, and you ve never been west 
of Upper Darby, or the Maunchunk switchback. 

Would H., with the swirl of the prairie wind in her 
underwear, or the Virile Sandburg recognize you, an 
effete easterner as a REAL American? INCON 
CEIVABLE ! ! ! ! ! 

My dear boy you have never felt the woop of the 
PEEraries. You have never seen the projecting and 
protuberant Mts. of the Sierra Nevada. WOT can 
you know of the country? 

You have the naive credulity of a Co. Claire emi- 



I 4 PROLOGUE 



grant. But I (der grosse Ich) have the virus, the 
bacillus of the land in my blood, for nearly three bleat 
ing centuries. 

(Bloody snob, eave a brick at im!!!) . . . 

I was very glad to see your wholly incoherent 
unamerican poems in the L. R. 

Of course Sandburg will tell you that you miss the 
"big drifts," and Bodenheim will object to your not 
being sufficiently decadent. 

You thank your bloomin gawd you ve got enough 
Spanish blood to muddy up your mind, and prevent the 
current American ideation from going through it like a 
blighted collander. 

The thing that saves your work is opacity, and don t 
forget it. Opacity is NOT an American quality. 
Fizz, swish, gabble, and verbiage, these are echt Amer- 
icanisch. 

And alas, alas, poor old Masters. Look at Oct. 
Poetry. 

Let me indulge the American habit of quotation: 

"Si le cosmopolitisme litteraire gagnait encore et 
qu il reussit a etaindre ce que les difference de race ont 
allume de haine de sang parmi les hommes, j y verrais 
un gain pour la civilization et pour 1 humanite tout 
entiere" .... 

"L amour excessif d une patrie a pour immediat 
corollair 1 horreur des patries etrangeres. Non seul- 
ment on craint de quitter la jupe de sa maman, d aller 
voir comment vivent les autres hommes, de se meler a 
leur luttes, de partager leur travaux, non seulment on 
reste chez soi, mais on finit par fermer sa porte." 

"Cette folie gagne certains litterateurs et le meme 
professeur, en sortant d expliquer le Cid ou Don Juan, 
redige de gracieuses injures centre Ibsen et I mfluence, 
helas, trop illusoire, de son oevre, pourtant toute de 
lumiere et de beaute." et cetera. Lie down and com 
pose yourself. 

I like to think of the Greeks as setting out for the colonies in 
Sicily and the Italian Peninsula. The Greek temperament lent 



PROLOGUE 15 



itself to a certain symmetrical sculptural phase and to a fat 
poetical balance of line that produced important work but I like 
better the Greeks setting their backs to Athens. The ferment 
was always richer in Rome, the dispersive explosion was always 
nearer, the influence carried further and remained hot longer. 
Hellenism, especially the modern sort, is too staid, too chilly, too 
little fecundative to impregnate my world. 

Hilda Doolittle before she began to write poetry or at least 
before she began to show it to anyone would say: "You re not 
satisfied with me, are you Billy? There s something lacking, 
isn t there ?" When I was with her my feet always seemed to be 
sticking to the ground while she would be walking on the tips of 
the grass stems. 

Ten years later as assistant editor of the Egoist she refers to 
my long poem, March, which thanks to her own and her husband s 
friendly attentions finally appeared there in a purified form : 

14 Aug. 1916 
Dear Bill : 

I trust you will not hate me for wanting to delete 
from your poem all the flippancies. The reason I want 
to do this is that the beautiful lines are so very beautiful 
so in the tone and spirit of your Postlude (which to 
me stands, a Nike, supreme among your poems). I 
think there is real beauty and real beauty is a rare and 
sacred thing in this generation in all the pyramid, 
Ashur-ban-i-pal bits and in the Fiesole and in the wind 
at the very last. 

I don t know what you think but I consider this 
business of writing a very sacred thing! I think you 
have the "spark" am sure of it, and when you speak 
direct are a poet. I feel in the hey-ding-ding touch 
running through your poem a derivitive tendency which, 
to me, is not you not your very self. It is as if you 
were ashamed of your Spirit, ashamed of your inspir 
ation! as if you mocked at your own song. It s very 
well to mock at yourself it is a spiritual sin to mock at 
your inspiration 

Hilda. 

Oh well, all this might be very disquieting were it not that 
"sacred" has lately been discovered to apply to a point of arrest 



16 PROLOGUE 



where stabilization has gone on past the time. There is nothing 
sacred about literature, it is damned from one end to the other. 
There is nothing in literature but change and change is mockery. 
I ll write whatever I damn please,whenever I damn please and as 
I damn please and it ll be good if the authentic spirit of change is 
on it. 

But in any case H. D. misses the entire intent of what I am 
doing no matter how just her remarks concerning that particular 
poem happen to have been. The hey-ding-ding touch was derivi- 
tive but it filled a gap that I did not know how better to fill at the 
time. It might be said that that touch is the prototype of the. 
improvisations. 

It is to the inventive imagination we look for deliverance 
from every other misfortune as from the desolation of a flat 
Hellenic perfection of style. What good then to turn to art from 
the atavistic religionists, from a science doing slavey service upon 
gas engines, from a philosophy tangled in a miserable sort of 
dialect that means nothing if the full power of initiative be denied 
at the beginning by a lot of baying and snapping scholiasts? 
If the inventive imagination must look, as I think, to the field of 
art for its richest discoveries today it will best make its way by 
compass and follow no path. 

But before any material progress can be accomplished there 
must be someone to draw a discriminating line between true and 
false values. 

The true value is that peculiarity which gives an object a 
character by itself. The associational or sentimental value is the 
false. Its imposition is due to lack of imagination, to an easy 
lateral sliding. The attention has been held too rigid on the one 
plane instead of following a more flexible, jagged resort. It is 
to loosen the attention, my attention since I occupy part of the 
field, that I write these improvisations. Here I clash with Wal 
lace Stevens. 

The imagination goes from one thing to another. Given 
many things of nearly totally divergent natures but possessing 
one- thousandth part of a quality in common, provided that be 
new, distinguished, these things belong in an imaginative category 
and not in a gross natural array. To me this is the gist of the 
whole matter. It is easy to fall under the spell of a certain mode, 
especially if it be remote of origin, leaving thus certain of its 
members essential to a reconstruction of its significance perma- 



PROLOGUE 17 



nently lost in an impenetrable mist of time. But the thing that 
stands eternally in the way of really good writing is always one: 
the virtual impossibility of lifting to the imagination those things 
which lie under the direct scrutiny of the senses, close to the nose. 
It is this difficulty that sets a value upon all works of art and 
makes them a necessity. The senses witnessing what is imme 
diately before them in detail see a finality which they cling to in 
despair, not knowing which way to turn. Thus the so-called 
natural or scientific array becomes fixed, the walking devil of 
modern life. He who even nicks the solidity of this apparition 
does a piece of work superior to that of Hercules when he cleaned 
the Augean stables. 

Stevens letter applies really to my book of poems, "Al Que 
Quiere" (which means, by the way, To Him Who Wants It) but 
the criticism he makes of that holds good for each of the impro 
visations if not for the oevre as a whole. 

It begins with a postscript in the upper left hand corner: 
"I think, after all, I should rather send this than not, although it is 
quarrelsomely full of my own ideas of discipline. 

April 9 
My dear Williams: 



What strikes me most about the poems themselves 
is their casual character . . . Personally I have a 
distaste for miscellany. It is one of the reasons I do 
not bother about a book myself. 

(Wallace Stevens is a fine gentleman whom Cannell 
likened to a Pennsylvania Dutchman who has suddenly 
become aware of his habits and taken to "society" in 
self defence. He is always immaculately dressed. I 
don t know why I should always associate him in my 
mind with an imaginary image I have of Ford Madox 
Hueffer.) 

. . . My idea is that in order to carry a thing to the 
extreme necessity to convey it one has to stick to it ; . . 
Given a fixed point of view, realistic, imagistic or what 
you will, everything adjusts itself to that point of view; 
and the process of adjustment is a world in flux, as it 
should be for a poet. But to fidget with points of view 



18 PROLOGUE 



leads always to new beginnings and incessant new be 
ginnings lead to sterility. 

(This sounds like Sir Roger de Coverly) 

A single manner 

or mood thoroughly matured and exploited is that fresh 
thing . . etc. 

One has to keep looking for poetry as Renoir 
looked for colors in old walls, wood-work and so on. 
Your place is 

among children ? 

Leaping around a dead dog. 

A book of that would feed the hungry . . . 

Well a book of poems is a damned serious affair. 
I am only objecting that a book that contains your 
particular quality should contain anything else and sug 
gesting that if the quality were carried to a commun 
icable extreme, in intensity and volume, etc. ... I see 
it all over the book, in your landscapes and portraits, 
but dissipated and obscured. Bouquets for brides and 
Spencerian compliments for poets . . . There are a 
very few men who have anything native in them or for 
whose work I d give a Bolshevic ruble . . . But I 
think your tantrums not half mad enough. 

(I am not quite clear about the last sentence but I 
presume he means that I do not push my advantage 
through to an overwhelming decision. What would 
you have me do with my Circe, Stevens, now that I have 
doublecrossed her game, marry her? It is not what 
Odysseus did). 

I return Pound s letter . . observe how in every 
thing he does he proceeds with the greatest positiveness 
etc. 

Wallace Stevens. 

I wish that I might here set down my "Vortex" after the 
fashion of London, 1913, stating how little it means to me whether 
I live here, there or elsewhere or succeed in this, that or the other 
so long as I can keep my mind free from the trammels of 
literature, beating down every attack of its retiarii with my 
mirmillones. But the time is past. 



PROLOGUE 19 



I thought at first to adjoin to each improvisation a more or 
less opaque commentary. But the mechanical interference that 
would result makes this inadvisable. Instead I have placed some 
of them in the preface where without losing their original inten 
tion (see reference numerals at the beginning of each) they 
relieve the later text and also add their weight to my present 
fragmentary argument. 

V. No. 2. By the brokeness of his composition the poet 
makes himself master of a certain weapon which he could possess 
himself of in no other way. The speed of the emotions is 
sometimes such that thrashing about in a thin exaltation or 
despair many matters are touched but not held, more often brok 
en by the contact. 

II. No. 3. The instability of these improvisations would 
seem such that they must inevitably crumble under the attention 
and become particles of a wind that falters. It would appear to 
the unready that the fiber of the thing is a thin jelly. It would be 
these same fools who would deny touch cords to the wind because 
they cannot split a storm endwise and wrap it upon spools. The 
virtue of strength lies not in the grossness of the fiber but in the 
fiber itself. Thus a poem is tough by no quality it borrows from 
a logical recital of events nor from the events themselves but 
solely from that attenuated power which draws perhaps many 
broken things into a dance giving them thus a full being. 

* * It is seldom that anything but the most elementary com 
munications can be exchanged one with another. There are in 
reality only two or three reasons generally accepted as the causes 
of action. No matter what the motive it will seldom happen that 
true knowledge of it will be anything more than vaguely divined 
by some one person, some half a person whose intimacy has 
perhaps been cultivated over the whole of a lifetime. We live in 
bags. This is due to the gross fiber of all action. By action 
itself almost nothing can be imparted. The world of action is a 
world of stones. 

XV. No. i. Bla! Bla! Bla! Heavy talk is talk that waits 
upon a deed. Talk is servile that is set to inform. Words with 
the bloom on them run before the imagination like the saeter girls 



20 PROLOGUE 



before Peer Gynt. It is talk with the patina of whim upon it 
makes action a boot-licker. So nowadays poets spit upon rhyme 
and rhetoric. 

* * The stream of things having composed itself into wiry- 
strands that move in one fixed direction, the poet in desperation 
turns at right angles and cuts across current with startling results 
to his hangdog mood. 

XI. No. 2. In France, the country of Rabelais, they know 
that the world is not made up entirely of virgins. They do not 
deny virtue to the rest because of that. Each age has its perfec 
tions but the praise differs. It is only stupid when the praise of 
the gross and the transformed would be minted in unfit terms 
such as suit nothing but youth s sweetness and frailty. It is ne 
cessary to know that laughter is the reverse of aspiration. So 
they laugh well in France, at Coquelin and the Petoman. Their 
girls, also, thrive upon the love-making they get, so much so that 
the world runs to Paris for that reason. 

XII. No. 2 B. It is chuckleheaded to desire a way through 
every difficulty. Surely one might even communicate with the 
dead and lose his taste for trufHes. Because snails are slimy 
when alive and because slime is associated (erroneously) with 
filth the fool is convinced that snails are detestable when, as it is 
proven every day, fried in butter with chopped parsely upon them, 
they are delicious. This is both sides of the question: the slave 
and the despoiled of his senses are one. But to weigh a difficulty 
and to turn it aside without being wrecked upon a destructive 
solution bespeaks an imagination of force sufficient to transcend 
action. The difficulty has thus been solved by ascent to a higher 
plane. It is energy of the imagination alone that cannot be laid 
aside. 

* * Rich as are the gifts of the imagination bitterness of 
world s loss is not replaced thereby. On the contrary it is inten 
sified, resembling thus possession itself. But he who has no 
power of the imagination cannot even know the full of his injury. 

VIII. No. 3. Those who permit their senses to be despoiled 
of the things under their noses by stories of all manner of things 



PROLOGUE 21 



removed and unattainable are of frail imagination. Idiots, it is 
true nothing is possessed save by dint of that vigorous conception 
of its perfections which is the imagination s special province but 
neither is anything possessed which is not extant. A frail 
imagination, unequal to the tasks before it, is easily led astray. 

IV. No. 2. Although it is a quality of the imagination that it 
seeks to place together those things which have a common rela 
tionship, yet the coining of similies is a pastime of very low order, 
depending as it does upon a nearly vegetable coincidence. Much 
more keen is that power which discovers in things those inimitable 
particles of dissimilarity to all other things which are the peculiar 
perfections of the thing in question. 

But this loose linking of one thing with another has effects 
of a destructive power little to be guessed at: all manner of things 
are thrown out of key so that it approaches the impossible to 
arrive at an understanding of anything. All is confusion, yet, it 
comes from a hidden desire for the dance, a lust of the imagin 
ation, a will to accord two instruments in a duet. 

But one does not attempt by the ingenuity of the joiner to 
blend the tones of the oboe with the violin. On the contrary the 
perfections of the two instruments are emphasized by the joiner; 
no means is neglected to give to each the full color of its perfec 
tions. It is only the music of the instruments which is joined and 
that not by the woodworker but by the composer, by virtue of the 
imagination. 

On this level of the imagination all things and ages meet in 
fellowship. Thus only can they, peculiar and perfect, find their 
release. This is the beneficent power of the imagination. 

* * Age and youth are great flatterers. Brooding on each 
other s obvious psychology neither dares tell the other outright 
what manifestly is the truth: your world is poison. Each is 
secure in his own perfections. Monsieur Eichorn used to 
have a most atrocious body odor while the odor of some 
girls is a pleasure to the nostril. Each quality in each person 
or age, rightly valued, would mean the freeing of that age 
to its own delights of action or repose. Now an evil odor can be 
pursued with praise-worthy ardor leading to great natural activity 
whereas a flowery skinned virgin may and no doubt often does 
allow herself to fall into destructive habits of neglect. 



22 PROLOGUE 



XIII. No. 3. A poet witnessing the chicory flower and 
realizing its virtues of form and color so constructs his praise of 
it as to borrow no particle from right or left. He gives his 
poem over to the flower and its plant themselves that they may 
benefit by those cooling winds of the imagination which thus 
returned upon them will refresh them at their task of saving 
the world. But what does it mean, remarked his friends ? 

VII. Coda. It would be better than depriving birds of their 
song to call them all nightingales. So it would be better than to 
have a world stript of poetry to provide men with some sort of* 
eyeglasses by which they should be unable to read any verse but 
sonnets. But fortunately although there are many sorts of 
fools, just as there are many birds which sing and many sorts of 
poems, there is no need to please them. 

* * All schoolmasters are fools. Thinking to build in the 
young the foundations of knowledge they let slip their minds that 
the blocks are of grey mist bedded upon the wind. Those who 
will taste of the wind himself have a mark in their eyes by virtue 
of which they bring their masters to nothing. 

* * All things brought under the hand of the possessor 
crumble to nothingness. Not only that : He who possesses a child 
if he cling to it inordinately becomes childlike, whereas, with a 
twist of the imagination, himself may rise into comradeship with 
the grave and beautiful presences of antiquity. But some have 
the power to free, say a young matron pursuing her infant, from 
her own possessions, making her kin to Yang Kuei-fei because of 
a haunting loveliness that clings about her knees, impeding her 
progress as she takes up her matronly pursuit. 

* * As to the sun what is he, save for his light, more than the 
earth is: the same mass of metals, a mere shadow? But the 
winged dawn is the very essence of the sun s self, a thing cold, 
vitreous, a virtue that precedes the body which it drags after it. 

1 The features of a landscape take their position in the 
imagination and are related more to their own kind there than to 
the country and season which has held them hitherto as a basket 
holds vegetables mixed with fruit. 



PROLOGUE 23 



VI. No. i. A fish swimming in a pond, were his back white 
and his belly green, would be easily perceived from above by 
hawks against the dark depths of water and from below by larger 
fish against the penetrant light of the sky. But since his belly is 
white and his back green he swims about in safety. Observing 
this barren truth and discerning at once its slavish application to 
the exercises of the mind, a young man, who has been sitting for 
some time in contemplation at the edge of a lake, rejects with 
scorn the parochial deductions of history and as scornfully as 
serts his defiance. 

XIV. No. 3. The barriers which keep the feet from the 
dance are the same which in a dream paralyze the effort to escape 
and hold us powerless in the track of some murderous pursuer. 
Pant and struggle but you cannot move. The birth of the imag 
ination is like waking from a nightmare. Never does the night 
seem so beneficent. 

* * The raw beauty of ignorance that lies like an opal mist 
over the west coast of the Atlantic, beginning at the Grand Banks 
and extending into the recesses of our brains the children, the 
married, the unmarried clings especially about the eyes and the 
throats of our girls and boys. Of a Sunday afternoon a girl sits 
before a mechanical piano and, working it with her hands and 
feet, opens her mouth and sings to the music a popular tune, 
ragtime. It is a serenade. I have seen a young Frenchman lean 
above the piano and looking down speak gently and wonder- 
ingly to one of our girls singing such a serenade. She did not 
seem aware of what she was singing and he smiled an occult but 
thoroughly bewildered smile as of a man waiting for a fog to 
lift, meanwhile lost in admiration of its enveloping beauty frag 
ments of architecture, a street opening and closing, a mysterious 
glow of sunshine. 

VIII. No. i. A man of note upon examining the poems of 
his friend and finding there nothing related to his immediate un 
derstanding laughingly remarked: After all, literature is com 
munication while you, my friend, I am afraid, in attempting to do 
something striking, are in danger of achieving mere presciosity. 
But inasmuch as the fields of the mind are vast and little ex 
plored, the poet was inclined only to smile and to take note of that 



24 PROLOGUE 



hardening infirmity of the imagination which seems to endow its 
victim with great solidity and rapidity of judgment. But he 
thought to himself : And yet of what other thing is greatness com 
posed than a power to annihilate half-truths for a thousandth part 
of accurate understanding. Later life has its perfections as well 
as that bough-bending time of the mind s florescence with which I 
am so discursively taken. 

I have discovered that the thrill of first love passes ! It even 
becomes the backbone of a sordid sort of religion if not assisted 
in passing. I knew a man who kept a candle burning before a 
girl s portrait day and night for a year then jilted her, 
pawned her off on a friend. I have been reasonably frank about 
my erotics with my wife. I have never or seldom said, my dear 
I love you, when I would rather say: My dear, I wish you 
were in Tierra del Fuego. I have discovered by scrupulous 
attention to this detail and by certain allied experiments that we 
can continue from time to time to elaborate relationships quite 
equal in quality, if not greatly superior, to that surrounding our 
wedding. In fact, the best we have enjoyed of love together has 
come after the most thorough destruction or harvesting of that 
which has gone before. Periods of barrenness have intervened, 
periods comparable to the prison music in Fidelio or to any of 
Beethoven s pianissimo transition passages. It is at these times 
our formal relations have teetered on the edge of a debacle to be 
followed, as our imaginations have permitted, by a new growth 
of passionate attachment dissimilar in every member to that which 
has gone before. 

It is in the continual and violent refreshing of the idea that 
love and good writing have their security. 

Alfred Kreymborg is primarily a musician, at best an inno 
vator of musical phrase: 

We have no dishes 
to eat our meals from. 
We have no dishes 
to eat our meals from 
because we have no dishes 
to eat our meals from 



PROLOGUE 25 



We need no dishes 
to eat our meals from, 
we have fingers 
to eat our meals from. 

Kreymborg s idea of poetry is a transforming music that has 
much to do with tawdry things. 

Few people know how to read Kreymborg. There is no 
modern poet who suffers more from a bastard sentimental appre 
ciation. It is hard to get his things from the page. I have heard 
him say he has often thought in despair of marking his verse 
into measures as music is marked. Oh, well 

The man has a bare irony, the gift of rhythm and Others. I 
smile to think of Alfred stealing the stamps from the envelopes 
sent for return of MSS. to the Others office ! The best thing that 
could happen for the good of poetry in the United States today 
would be for someone to give Alfred Kreymborg a hundred 
thousand dollars. In his mind there is the determination for 
freedom brought into relief by a crabbedness of temper that 
makes him peculiarly able to value what is being done here. 
Whether he is bull enough for the work I am not certain, but that 
he can find his way that I know. 

A somewhat petulant English college friend of my brother s 
once remarked that Britons make the best policemen the world 
has ever witnessed. I agree with him. It is silly to go into a 
puckersnatch because some brass-button-minded nincompoop in 
Kensington flies off the handle and speaks openly about our 
United States prize poems. This Mr. Jepson "Anyone who has 
heard Mr. J. read Homer and discourse on Catullus would 
recognize his fitness as a judge and respecter of poetry" this 
is Ezra ! this champion of the right is not half a fool. His 
epithets and phrases slip-shod, rank bad workmanship of a man 
who has shirked his job, lumbering fakement, cumbrous arti 
ficiality, maundering dribble, rancid as Ben Hur are in the main 
well-merited. And besides, he comes out with one fairly lipped 
cornet blast: the only distinctive U. S. contributions to the arts 
have been ragtime and buck-dancing. 

Nothing is good save the new. If a thing have novelty it 
stands intrinsically beside every other work of artistic excellence. 
If it have not that, no loveliness or heroic proportion or grand 



26 PROLOGUE 



manner will save it. It will not be saved above all by an attenu 
ated intellectuality. 

But all U. S. verse is not bad according to Mr. J., there is 
T. S. Eliot and his, Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. 

But our prize poems are especially to be damned not because 
of superficial bad workmanship, but because they are rehash, 
repetition just as Eliot s more exquisite work is rehash, 
repetition in another way of Verlaine, Beaudelaire, Maeter 
linck, conscious or unconscious, just as there were Pound s 
early paraphrases from Yeats and his constant later cribbing 
from the renaissance, Provence and the modern French: Men 
content with the connotations of their masters. 

It is convenient to have fixed standards of comparison: All 
antiquity! And there is always some everlasting Polonius of 
Kensington forever to rate highly his eternal Eliot. It is because 
Eliot is a subtle conformist. It tickles the palate of this arch 
bishop of procurers to a lecherous antiquity to hold up Prufrock 
as a New World type. Prufrock, the nibbler at sophistication, 
endemic in every capital, the not quite (because he refuses to 
turn his back), is "the soul of that modern land," the United 
States ! 

Blue undershirts, 

Upon a line, 

It is not secessary to say to you 

Anything about it 

I cannot question Eliot s observation. Prufrock is a masterly 
portrait of the man just below the summit, but the type is univer 
sal ; the model in his case might be Mr. J. 

No. The New World is Montezuma or since he was stoned 
to death in a parley, Guatemozin who had the city of Mexico 
levelled over him before he was taken. 

For the rest, there is no man even though he dare who can 
make beauty his own and "so at last live," at least there is no 
man better situated for that achievement than another. As Pru 
frock longed for his silly lady so Kensington longs for its Har- 
danger dairymaid. By a mere twist of the imagination, if Pru 
frock only knew it, the whole world can be inverted (why else are 
there wars?) and the mermaids be set warbling to whoever will 
listen to them. Seesaw and blind-man s-buff converted into a 
sort of football. 



PROLOGUE 27 



But the summit of United States achievement, according to 
Mr. J. who can discourse on Catullus is that very beautiful 
poem of Eliot s, La Figlia Que Piange : just the right amount of 
everything drained through, etc., etc., etc., etc., the rhythm 
delicately studied and IT CONFORMS ! ergo here we have 
"the very fine flower of the finest spirit of the United States." 

Examined closely this poem reveals a highly refined distilla 
tion. Added to the already "faithless" formula of yesterday we 
have a conscious simplicity: 

Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of the hand. 

The perfection of that line is beyond cavil. Yet, in the last 
stanza, this paradigm, this very fine flower of U. S. art is warped 
out of alignment, obscured in meaning even to the point of an 
absolute unintelligibility by the inevitable straining after a rhyme, 
the very cleverness with which this straining is covered being a 
sinister token in itself. 

And I wonder how they should have been together ! 

So we have no choice but to accept the work of this fumbling 
conjurer. 

Upon the Jepson filet Eliot balances his mushroom. It is the 
latest touch from the literary cuisine, it adds to the pleasant out 
look from the club window. If to do this, if to be a Whistler at 
best, in the art of poetry, is to reach the height of poetic expres 
sion then Ezra and Eliot have approached it and tant pis for the 
rest of us. 

The Adobe Indian hag sings her lullaby : 

The beetle is blind 
The beetle is blind 
The beetle is blind 
The beetle is blind, etc., etc. 

and Kandinsky in his, Ueber das Geistige in der Kitnst, sets down 
the following axioms for the artist : . 

Every artist has to express himself 
Every artist has to express his epoch. 
Every artist has to express the pure and eternal 
qualities of the art of al l men. 



28 PROLOGUE 

So we have the fish and the bait, but the last rule holds three hooks 
at once not for the fish, however. 

I do not overlook De Gourmont s plea for a meeting of the 
nations, but I do believe that when they meet Paris will be more 
than slightly abashed to find parodies of the middle ages, Dante 
and Langue D Oc foisted upon it as the best in United States 
poetry. Even Eliot, who is too fine an artist to allow himself 
to be exploited by a blockheaded grammaticaster, turns recently 
toward "one definite false note" in his quatrains, which more 
nearly approach America than ever La Figlia Que Piange did. 
Ezra Pound is a Boscan who has met his Navagiero. 

One day Ezra and I were walking down a back lane in 
Wyncote. I contended for bread, he for caviar. I become hot. 
He, with fine discretion, exclaimed: "Let us drop it. We will 
never agree, or come to an agreement." He spoke then like a 
Frenchman, which is one who discerns. 

Imagine an international congress of poets at Paris or Ver 
sailles, Remy de Gourmont (now dead) presiding, poets all 
speaking five languages fluently. Ezra stands up to represent 
U. S. verse and De Gourmont sits down smiling. Ezra begins by 
reading, La Figlia Que Piange. It would be a pretty pastime to 
gather into a mental basket the fruits of that reading from the 
minds of the ten Frenchmen present; their impressions of the 
sort of United States that very fine flower was picked from. 
After this Kreymborg might push his way to the front and read 
Jack s House. 

E. P. is the best enemy United States verse has. He is 
interested, passionately interested even if he doesn t know what 
he is talking about. But of course he does know what he is talking 
about. He does not, however, know everything, not by more 
than half. The accordances of which Americans have the parts 
and the colors but not the completions before them pass beyond 
the attempts of his thought. It is a middle aging blight of the 
imagination. 

I praise those who have the wit and courage, and the con 
ventionality, to go direct toward their vision of perfection in an 
objective world where the sign-posts are clearly marked, viz., to 
London. But confine them in hell for their paretic assumption 
that there is no alternative but their own groove. 

Dear fat Stevens, thawing out so beautifully at forty! I 
was one day irately damning those who run to London when 



PROLOGUE 29 



Stevens caught me up with his mild: "But where in the world 
will you have them run to?" 

Nothing that I should write touching poetry would be com 
plete without Maxwell Bodenheim in it, even had he not said 
that the Improvisations were "perfect," the best thngs I had ever 
done ; for that I place him, Janus, first and last. 

Bodenheim pretends to hate most people, including Pound 
and Kreymborg, but that he really goes to this trouble I cannot 
imagine. He seems rather to me to have the virtue of self ab- 
sorbtion so fully developed that hate is made impossible. Due to 
this, also, he is an unbelievable physical stoic. I know of no one 
who lives so completely in his pretences as Bogie does. - Having 
formulated his world neither toothache nor the misery to which 
his indolence reduces him can make head against the force of his 
imagination. Because of this he remains for me a heroic figure, 
which, after all, is quite apart from the stuff he writes and which 
only concerns him. He is an Isaiah of the butterflies. 

Bogie was the young and fairly well acclaimed genius when 
he came to New York four years ago. He pretended to have 
fallen in Chicago and to have sprained his shoulder. The joint 
was done up in a proper Sayre s dressing and there really looked 
to be a bona fide injury. Of course he couldn t find any work to 
do with one hand so we all chipped in. It lasted a month! 
During that time Bogie spent a week at my house at no small 
inconvenience to Florence, who had two babies on her hands 
just then. When he left I expressed my pleasure at having had 
his company. "Yes," he replied, "I think you have profited by 
my visit." The statement impressed me by its simple accuracy as 
well as by the evidence it bore of that fullness of the imagina 
tion which had held the man in its tide while we had been 
together. 

Charlie Demuth once told me that he did not like the taste of 
liquor, for which he was thankful, but that he found the effect it 
had on his mind to be delightful. Of course Li Po is reported to 
have written his best verse supported in the arms of the Emper 
or s attendants and with a dancing-girl to hold his tablet. He 
was also a great poet. Wine is merely the latchstring. 

The virtue of it all is in an opening of the doors, though 
some rooms of course will be empty, a break with banality, the 
continual hardening which habit enforces. There is nothing left 



30 PROLOGUE 



in me but the virtue of curiosity, Demuth puts in. The poet 
should be forever at the ship s prow. 

An acrobat seldom learns really a new trick, but he must 
exercise continually to keep his joints free. When I made this 
discovery it started rings in my memory that keep following one 
after the other to this day. 

I have placed the following Improvisations in groups, some 
what after the A. B. A. formula, that one may support the other, 
clarifying or enforcing perhaps the other s intention. 

The arrangement of the notes, each following its poem and 
separated from it by a ruled line, is borrowed from a small volume 
of Metastasio, Vane Poesie Dell Abate Pietro Metastasio, 
Venice, 1795. 

September i, 1918 



IMPROVISATIONS 



IMPROVISATIONS 



Fools have big wombs. For the rest? here is pennyroyal 
if one knows to use it. But time is only another liar, so go along 
the wall a little further: if blackberries prove bitter there ll be 
mushrooms, fairy- ring mushrooms, in the grass, sweetest of all 
fungi. 

2 

For what it s worth : Jacob Louslinger, white haired, stinking, 
dirty bearded, cross eyed, stammer tongued, broken voiced, bent 
backed, ball kneed, cave bellied, mucous faced deathling, 
found lying in the weeds "up there by the cemetery". "Looks 
to me as if he d been bumming around the meadows for a couple 
of weeks". Shoes twisted into incredible lilies: out at the toes, 
heels, tops, sides, soles. Meadow flower! ha, mallow! at last I 
have you. (Rot dead marigolds an acre at a time! Gold, are 
you?) Ha, clouds will touch world s edge and the great pink 
mallow stand singly in the wet, topping reeds and a closet full of 
clothes and good shoes and my-thirty-year s-master s-daughter s 
two cows for me to care for and a winter room With a fire in it . 
I would rather feed pigs in Moonachie and chew calamus root 
and break crab s claws at an open fire: age s lust loose! 

3 

Talk as you will, say: "No woman wants to bother with 
children in this country"; speak of your Amsterdam and the 
whitest aprons and brightest doorknobs in Christendom. And I ll 
answer you: "Gleaming doorknobs and scrubbed entries have 
heard the songs of the housemaids at sun-up and housemaids 
are wishes. Whose? Ha! the dark canals are whistling, 

[33] 



34 IMPROVISATIONS 

whistling for who will cross to the other side. If I remain with 
hands in pocket leaning upon my lamppost why I bring curses 
to a hag s lips and her daughter on her arm knows better than I 
can tell you best to blush and out with it than back beaten after. 



In Holland at daybreak, of a fine spring morning, one sees the 
housemaids beating rugs before the small houses of such a city as 
Amsterdam, sweeping, scrubbing the low entry steps and polishing 
doorbells and doorknobs. By night perhaps there will be an old 
woman with a girl on her arm, histing and whistling across a 
deserted canal to some late loiterer trudging aimlessly on beneath 
the gas lamps. 



IMPROVISATIONS 35 



II. 



i 



Why go further? One might conceivably rectify the rhythm, 
study all out and arrive at the perfection of a tiger lily or a china 
doorknob. One might lift all out of the ruck, be a worthy 
successor to the man in the moon. Instead of breaking the 
back of a willing phrase why not try to follow the wheel 
through approach death at a walk, take in all the scenery. 
There s as much reason one way as the other and then one 
never knows perhaps we ll bring back Euridice this time! 



Between two contending forces there may at all times arrive 
that moment when the stress is equal on both sides so that with a 
great pushing a great stability results giving a picture of perfect 
rest. And so it may be that once upon the way the end drives 
back upon the beginning and a stoppage will occur. At such a 
time the poet shrinks from the doom that is calling him forgetting 
the delicate rhythms of perfect beauty, preferring in his mind the 
gross buffetings of good and evil fortune. 

2 

Ay dio! I could say so much were it not for the tunes 
changing, changing, darting so many ways. One step and the 
cart s left you sprawling. Here s the way ! and you re hip bog 
ged. And there s blame of the light too : when eyes are humming 
birds who ll tie them with a lead string? But it s the tunes they 
want most, send them skipping out at the tree tops. Whistle 
then! who ld stop the leaves swarming; curving down the east 
in their braided jackets? Well enough but there s small 
comfort in naked branches when the heart s not set that way. 



A man s desire is to win his way to some hilltop. But against 
him seem to swarm a hundred jumping devils. These are his 
constant companions, these are the friendly images which he has 
invented out of his mind and which are inviting him to rest and 
to disport himself according to hidden reasons. The man being 



36 IMPROVISATIONS 

half a poet is cast down and longs to rid himself of his torment 
and his tormentors. 

3 

When you hang your clothes on the line you do not expect to 
see the line broken and them trailing in the mud. Nor would 
you expect to keep your hands clean by putting them in a dirty 
pocket. However and of course if you are a market man, fish, 
cheeses and the like going under your fingers every minute in the 
hour you would not leave off the business and expect to handle 
a basket of fine laces without at least mopping yourself on a 
towel, soiled as it may be. Then how will you expect a fine 
trickle of words to follow you through the intimacies of this 
dance without oh, come let us walk together into the air awhile 
first. One must be watchman to much secret arrogance before 
his ways are tuned to these measures. You see there is a dip of 
the ground between us. You think you can leap up from your 
gross caresses of these creatures and at a gesture fling it all off 
and step out in silver to my finger tips. Ah, it is not that I do 
not wait for you, always ! But my sweet fellow you have brok 
en yourself without purpose, you are Hark! it is the music! 
Whence does it come? What! Out of the ground? Is it this 
that you have been preparing for me? Ha, goodbye, I have a 
rendez vous in the tips of three birch sisters. Encourage vos 
musiciensl Ask them to play faster. I will return later. Ah 
you are kind. and I ? must dance with the wind, make my own 
snow flakes, whistle a contrapuntal melody to my own fuge! 
Huzza then, this is the dance of the blue moss bank! Huzza 
then, this is the mazurka of the hollow log! Huzza then, this 
is the dance of rain in the cold trees. 



IMPROVISATIONS 37 



III. 



So far away August green as it yet is. They say the sun 
still comes up o mornings and it s harvest moon now. Always 
one leaf at the peak twig swirling, swirling and apples rotting in 
the ditch. 

2 

My wife s uncle went to school with Amundsen. After he, 
Amundsen, returned from the south pole there was a Scandinav 
ian dinner, which bored Amundsen like a boyhood friend. There 
was a young woman at his table, silent and aloof from the rest. 
She left early and he restless at some impalpable delay apolo 
gized suddenly and went off with two friends, his great, lean bulk 
twitching agilely. One knew why the poles attracted him. 
Then my wife s mother told me the same old thing, how a girl in 
their village jilted him years back^ But the girl at the supper! 
Ah that comes later when we are wiser and older. 

3 

What can it mean to you that a child wears pretty clothes 
and speaks three languages or that its mother goes to the best 
shops? It means: July has good need of his blazing sun. But 
if you pick one berry from the ash tree I d not know it again for 
the same no matter how the rain washed. Make my bed of 
witchhazel twigs, said the old man, since they bloom on the brink 
of winter. 



There is neither beginning nor end to the imagination but it 
delights in its own seasons reversing the usual order at will. 
Of the air of the coldest room it will seem to build the hottest 
passions. Mozart would dance with his wife, whistling his own 
tune to keep the cold away and Villon ceased to write upon his 
Petit Testament only when the ink was frozen. But men in the 
direst poverty of the imagination buy finery and indulge in 
extravagant moods in order to piece out their lack with other 
matter. 



38 IMPROVISATIONS 



IV. 



Mamselle Day, Mamselle Day, come back again ! Slip your 
clothes off! the jingling of those little shell ornaments so 
deftly fastened ! The streets are turning in their covers. 
They smile with shut eyes. I have been twice to the moon since 
supper but she has nothing to tell me. Mamselle come back! 
I will be wiser this time. 



That which is past is past forever and no power of the 
imagination can bring it back again. Yet inasmuch as there 
are many lives being lived in the world, by virtue of sadness and 
regret we are enabled to partake to some small degree of those 
pleasures we have missed or lost but which others more fortunate 
than we are in the act of enjoying. 

If one should catch me in this state! wings would go at 
a bargain. Ah but to hold the world in the hand then Here s 
a brutal jumble. And if you move the stones, see the ants scurry. 
But it s queen s eggs they take first, tax their jaws most. Burrow, 
burrow, burrow! there s sky that way too if the pit s deep 
enough so the stars tell us. 



It is an obsession of the gifted that by direct onslaught or 
by some back road of the intention they will win the recognition 
of the world. Cezanne. And inasmuch as some men have had a 
bare recognition in their lives the fiction is continued. But the 
sad truth is that since the imagination is nothing, nothing will 
come of it. Thus those necessary readjustments of sense which 
are the everyday affair of the mind are distorted and intensified in 
these individuals so that they frequently believe themselves to be 
the very helots of fortune, whereas nothing could be more ridicu 
lous than to suppose this. However their strength will revive if 
it may be and finding a sweetness on the tongue of which they had 
no foreknowledge they set to work again with renewed vigor. 



IMPROVISATIONS 39 



How smoothly the car runs. And these rows of celery, how 
they bitter the air winter s authentic foretaste. Here among 
these farms how the year has aged, yet here s last year and the 
year before and all years. One might rest here time without end, 
watch out his stretch and see no other bending than spring to 
autumn, winter to summer and earth turning into leaves and 
leaves into earth and how restful these long beet rows- the 
caress of the low clouds the river lapping at the reeds. Was it 
ever so high as this, so full? How quickly we ve come this far. 
Which way is north now? North now? why that way I think. 
Ah there s the house at last, here s April, but the blinds are 
down ! It s all dark here. Scratch a hurried note. Slip it over 
the sill. Well, some other time. 



How smoothly the car runs. This must be the road. Queer 
how a road juts in. How the dark catches among those trees! 
How the light clings to the canal ! Yes there s one table taken, 
we ll not be alone This place has possibilities. Will you bring 
her here? Perhaps and when we meet on the stair, shall we 
speak, say it is some acquaintance or pass silent? Well, a jest s 
a jest but how poor this tea is. Think of a life in this place, 
here in these hills by these truck farms. Whose life? Why 
there, back of you. If a woman laughs a little loudly one always 
thinks that way of her. But how she bedizens the country-side. 
Quite an old world glamour. If it were not for but one cannot 
have everything. What poor tea it was. How cold it s grown. 
Cheering, a light is that way among the trees. That heavy 
laugh ! How it will rattle these branches in six week s time. 



The frontispiece is her portrait and further on the obituary 
sermon: she held the school upon her shoulders. Did she. 
Well turn in here then : we found money in the blood and some 
in the room and on the stairs. My God I never knew a man had 
so much blood in his head! and thirteen empty whisky 
bottles. I am sorry but those who come this way meet strange 
company. This is you see death s canticle. 



40 IMPROVISATIONS 

A young woman who had excelled at intellectual pursuits, 
a person of great power in her sphere, died on the same night 
that a man was murdered in the next street, a fellow of very 
gross behavior. The poet takes advantage of this to send them 
on their way side by side without making the usual unhappy 
moral distinctions. 



IMPROVISATIONS 41 



V. 



Beautiful white corpse of night actually! So the north-west 
winds ox death are mountain sweet after all! All the troubled 
stars are put to bed now: three bullets from wife s hand none 
kindlier : in the crown, in the nape and one lower : three starlike 
holes among a million pocky pores and the moon of your mouth : 
Venus, Jupiter, Mars, and all stars melted forthwith into this 
one good white light over the inquest table, the traditional moth 
beating its wings against it except there are two here. But 
sweetest are the caresses of the county physician, a little clumsy 
perhaps mais ! and the Prosecuting Attorney, Peter Valuzzi 
and the others, waving green arms of maples to the tinkling of 
the earliest ragpicker s bells. Otherwise : kindly stupid hands, 
kindly coarse voices, infinitely soothing, infinitely detached, 
infinitely beside the question, restfully babbling of how, v/here, 
why and night is done and the green edge of yesterday has 
said all it could. 



Remorse is a virtue in that it is a stirrer up of the emotions 
but it is a folly to accept it as a criticism of conduct. So to 
accept it is to attempt to fit the emotions of a certain state to a 
preceding state to which they are in no way related. Imagina 
tion though it cannot wipe out the sting of remorse can instruct 
the mind in its proper uses. 

2 

It is the water we drink. It bubbles under every hill. How ? 
Agh, you stop short of the root. Why, caught and the town goes 
mad. The haggard husband pirouettes in tights. The wolf-lean 
wife is rolling butter pats : it s a clock striking the hour. Pshaw, 
they do things better in Bangkok, here too, if there s heads 
together. But up and leap at her throat! Bed s at fault! 
Yet I ve seen three women prostrate, hands twisted in each 
other s hair, teeth buried where the hold offered, not a move 
ment, not a cry more than a low meowling. Oh call me a lady 
and think you ve caged me. Hell s loose every minute, you hear? 
And the truth is there s not an eye clapped to either way but 
someone comes off the dirtier for it. Who am I to wash hands 



42 IMPROVISATIONS 

and stand near the wall? I confess freely there s not a bitch 
littered in the pound but my skin grows ruddier. Ask me and 
I ll say: curfew for the ladies. Bah, two in the grass is the 
answer to that gesture. Here s a text for you : Many daughters 
have done virtuously but thou excellest them all! And so you 
do, if the manner of a walk means anything. You walk in a 
different nir from the others, though your husband s the better 
man and the charm wont last a fortnight : the street s kiss par 
ried again. But give thought to your daughters food at mating 
time, you good men. Send them to hunt spring beauties beneath 
the sod this winter, otherwise: hats off to the lady! One can 
afford to smile. 



Marry in middle life and take the young thing home. Later 
in the year let the worst out. It s odd how little the tune changes. 
Do worse till your mind s turning, then rush into repentence 
and the lady grown a hero while the clock strikes. 

Here the harps have a short cadenza. It s sunset back of 
the new cathedral and the purple river scum has set seaward. 
The car s at the door. I d not like to go alone tonight. I ll pay 
you well. It s the kings-evil. Speed! Speed! The sun s 
self s a chancre low in the west Ha, how the great houses shine 
for old time s sake! For sale! For sale! The town s gone 
another way. But I m not fooled that easily. Fort sale! Fort 
sale! if you read it aright. And Beauty s own head on the 
pillow, a la Muja Desnuda! O Contessa de Alba! Contessa de 
Alba! Never was there such a lewd wonder in the streets of 
Newark! Open the windows but all s boarded up here. Out 
with you, you sleepy doctors and lawyers you, the sky s afire 
and Calvary Church with its snail s horns up, sniffing the dawn 
o the wrong side ! Let the trumpets blare ! Tutti i instrument^! 
The world s bound homeward. 



A man whose brain is slowly curdling due to a syphilitic 
infection acquired in early life calls on a friend to go with him on 
a journey to the city. The friend out of compassion goes, and, 
thinking of the condition of his unhappy companion, falls to 
pondering on the sights he sees as he is driven up one street and 



_____ IMPROVISATIONS 43 

down another. It being evening he witnesses a dawn of great 
beauty striking backward upon the world in a reverse direction 
to the sun s course and not knowing of what else to think discov 
ers it to be the same power which has led his companion to 
destruction. At this he is inclined to scoff derisively at the city s 
prone stupidity and to make light indeed of his friend s misfor 
tune. 



44 IMPROVISATIONS 



VI. 



Of course history is an attempt to make the past seem stable 
and of course it s all a lie. Nero must mean Nero or the game s 
up. But though killies have green backs and white bellies, zut ! 
for the bass and hawks ! When we ve tired of swimming we ll 
go climb in the ledgy forest. Confute the sages. 



Quarrel with a purple hanging because it s no column from 
the Parthenon. Here s splotchy velvet set to hide a door in the 
wall and there there s the man himself praying! Oh quarrel 
whether twas Pope Clement raped Persephone or did the devil 
wear a mitre in that year? Come, there s much use in being thin 
on a windy day if the cloth s cut well. And oak leaves will not 
come on maples, nor birch trees either that is provided , but 
pass it over, pass it over. 



A woman of good figure, if she be young and gay, welcomes 
the wind that presses tight upon her from forehead to ankles 
revealing the impatient mountains and valleys of her secret 
desire. The wind brings release to her. But the wind is no 
blessing to all women. At the same time it is idle to quarrel 
over the relative merits of one thing and another, oak leaves 
will not come on maples. But there is a deeper folly yet in such 
quarreling: the perfections revealed by a Rembrandt are equal 
whether it be question of a laughing Saskia or an old woman 
cleaning her nails. 

3 

Think of some lady better than Rackham draws them : mere 
fairy stuff some face that would be your face, were you of the 
right sex, some twenty years back of a still morning, some 
Lucretia out of the Vatican turned Carmelite, some double image 
cast over a Titian Venus by two eyes quicker than Titian s hands 
were, some strange daughter of an inn-keeper, some . . . Call 
it a net to catch love s twin doves and I ll say to you: Look! 



IMPROVISATIONS 45 

and there ll be the sky there and you ll say the sky s blue. 
Whisk the thing away now? What s the sky now? 



By virtue of works of art the beauty of woman is released 
to flow whither it will up and down the years. The imagination 
transcends the thing itself. Kaffirs admire what they term 
beauty in their women but which is in official parlance a deform 
ity. A Kaffir poet to be a good poet would praise that which is 
to him praiseworthy and we should be scandalized. 



46 IMPROVISATIONS 



VII. 



It is still warm enough to slip from the weeds into the lake s 
edge, your clothes blushing in the grass and three small boys 
grinning behind the derelict hearth s side. But summer is up 
among the huckleberries near the path s end and snakes eggs lie 
curling in the sun on the lonely summit. But well let s wish 
it were higher after all these years staring at it deplore the 
paunched clouds glimpse the sky s thin counter-crest and plunge 
into the gulch. Sticky cobwebs tell of feverish midnights. 
Crack a rock (what s a thousand years!) and send it crashing 
among the oaks! Wind a pine tree in a grey-worm s net and 
play it for a trout ; oh but it s the moon does that ! No, summer 
has gone down the other side of the mountain. Carry home what 
we can. What have you brought off? Ah here are thimble- 
berries. 



In middle life the mind passes to a variegated October. 
This is the time youth in its faulty aspirations has set for the 
achievement of great summits. But having attained the mount 
ain top one is not snatched into a cloud but the descent proffers 
its blandishments quite as a matter of course. At this the fellow 
is cast into a great confusion and rather plaintively looks about 
to see if any has fared better than he. 



The little Polish Father of Kingsland does not understand, 
he cannot understand. These are exquisite differences never to 
be resolved. He comes at midnight through mid-winter slush 
to baptise a dying newborn; he smiles suavely and shruggs his 
shoulders : a clear middle A touched by a master but he cannot 
understand. And Benny, Sharon, Henrietta, and Josephine, what 
is it to them? Yet jointly they come more into the way of the 
music. And white haired Miss Ball! The empty school is 
humming to her little melody played with one finger at the noon 
hour but it is beyond them all. There is much heavy breathing, 
many tight shut lips, a smothered laugh whiles, two laughs crack- 



IMPROVISATIONS 47 

ing together, three together sometimes and then a burst of wind 
lifting the dust again. 



Living with and upon and among the poor, those that gather 
in a few rooms, sometimes very clean, sometimes full of vermine, 
there are certain pestilential individuals, priests, school teachers, 
doctors, commercial agents of one sort or another who though 
they themselves are full of graceful perfections nevertheless con 
trive to be so complacent of their lot, floating as they are with the 
depth of a sea beneath them, as to be worthy only of amused 
contempt. Yet even to these sometimes there rises that which they 
think in their ignorance is a confused babble of aspiring voices not 
knowing what ancient harmonies these are to which they are so 
faultily listening. 



What I like best s the long unbroken line of the hills there. 
Yes, it s a good view. Come, let s visit the orchard. Here s 
peaches twenty years on the branch. Not ripe yet!? Why ! 
Those hills! Those hills! But you ld be young again! Well, 
f ourteen s a hard year for boy or girl, let alone one older driving 
the pricks in, but though there s more in a song than the notes of 
it and a smile s a pretty baby when you ve none other let s not 
turn backward. Mumble the words, you understand, call them 
four brothers, strain to catch the sense but have to admit it s in a 
language they ve not taught you, a flaw somewhere, and for 
answer : well, that long unbroken line of the hills there. 



Two people, an old man and a woman in early middle life, are 
talking together upon a small farm at which the woman has just 
arrived on a visit. They have walked to an orchard on the slope 
of a hill from which a distant range of mountains can be clearly 
made out. A third man, piecing together certain knowledge he 
has of the woman with what is being said before him is prompted 
to give rein to his imagination. This he does and hears many 
oblique sentences which escape the others. 



48 IMPROVISATIONS 



Coda. 

Squalor and filth with a sweet cur nestling in the grimy 
blankets of your bed and on better roads striplings dreaming of 
wealth and happiness. Country life in America! The cackling 
grackle that dartled at the hill s bottom have joined their flock 
and swing with the rest over a broken roof toward Dixie. 



IMPROVISATIONS 49 



VIII. 



Some fifteen years we ll say I served this friend, was his 
valet, nurse, physician, fool and master: nothing too menial, to 
say the least. Enough of that: so. 

Stand aside while they pass. This is what they found in the 
rock when it was cracked open: this fingernail. Hide your face 
among the lower leaves, here s a meeting should have led to better 
things but it is only one branch out of the forest and night 
pressing you for an answer! Velvet night weighing upon your 
eye-balls with gentle insistence ; calling you away : Come with me, 
now, tonight ! Come with me ! now tonight . . 



In great dudgeon over the small profit that has come to him 
through a certain companionship a poet addresses himself and the 
loved one as if it were two strangers, thus advancing himself to 
the brink of that discovery which will reward all his labors but 
which he as yet only discerns as a night, a dark void coaxing him 
whither he has no knowledge. 

2 

You speak of the enormity of her disease, of her poverty. 
Bah, these are the fiddle she makes tunes on and it s tunes bring 
the world dancing to your house-door, even on this swamp side. 
You speak of the helpless waiting, waiting till the thing squeeze 
her windpipe shut. Oh, that s best of all, that s romance with 
the devil himself a hero. No my boy. You speak of her man s 
callous stinginess. Yes, my God, how can he refuse to buy milk 
when it s alone milk that she can swallow now ? But how is it she 
picks market beans for him day in, day out, in the sun, in the 
frost? You understand? You speak of so many things, you 
blame me for my indifference. Well, this is you see my sister 
and death, great death is robbing her of life. It dwarfs most 
things. 



Filth and vermine though they shock the over-nice are imper 
fections of the flesh closely related in the just imagination of the 



50 IMPROVISATIONS 

poet to excessive cleanliness. After some years of varied exper 
ience with the bodies of the rich and the poor a man finds little to 
distinguish between them, bulks them as one and bases his work 
ing judgements on other matters. 

3 

Hercules is in Hacketstown doing farm labor. Look at his 
hands if you ll not believe me. And what do I care if yellow and 
red are Spain s riches and Spain s good blood. Here yellow and 
red mean simply autumn! The odor of the poor farmer s fried 
supper is mixing with the smell of the hemlocks, mist is in the 
valley hugging the ground and over Parsippany where an oldish 
man leans talking to a young woman the moon is swinging from 
its star. 



IMPROVISATIONS 51 



IX. 



Throw that flower in the waste basket, it s faded. And keep 
an eye to your shoes and fingernails. The fool you once laughed 
at has made a fortune ! There s small help in a clutter of leaves 
either, no matter how they gleam. Punctillio s the thing. A 
nobby vest. Spats. Lamps carry far, believe me, in lieu of 
sunshine ! 



Despite vastness of frontiers, which are as it were the fringes 
of a flower full of honey, it is the little things that count! 
Neglect them and bitterness drowns the imagination. 



The time never was when he could play more than mattrass to 
the pretty feet of this woman who had been twice a mother with 
out touching the meager pollen of their marriage intimacy. What 
more for him than to be a dandelion that could chirp with crickets 
or do a onestep with snow flakes? The tune is difficult but not 
impossible to the middle aged whose knees are tethered faster to 
the mind than they are at eighteen when any wind sets them 
clacking. What a rhythm s here! One would say the body lay 
asleep and the dance escaped from the hair tips, the bleached fuzz 
that covers back and belly, shoulders, neck and forehead. The 
dance is diamantine over the sleeper who seems not to breathe! 
One would say heat over the end of a roadway that turns down 
hill. Cesa! 



One may write music and music but who will dance to it? 
The dance escapes but the music, the music projects a dance 
over itself which the feet follow lazily if at all. So a dance is a 
thing in itself. It is the music that dances but if there are words 
then there are two dancers, the words pirouetting with the music. 

3 

One has emotions about the strangest things: men women 
himself the most contemptible. But to struggle with ants for a 



52 IMPROVISATIONS 

piece of meat, a mangy cur to swallow beetles and all better go 
slaughter one s own kind in the name of peace except when the 
body s not there maggots swarm in the corruption. Oh let him 
have it. Find a cleaner fare for wife and child. To the sick 
their sick. For us heads bowed over the green-flowered aspho 
del. Lean on my shoulder little one, you too. I will lead you to 
fields you know nothing of. There s small dancing left for us 
any way you look at it. 



A man who enjoyed his food, the company of his children 
and especially his wife s alternate caresses and tongue lashings 
felt his position in the town growing insecure due to a successful 
business competitor. Being thus stung to the quick he thinks 
magnanimously of his own methods of dealing with his customers 
and likens his competitor to a dog that swallows his meat with 
beetles or maggots upon it, that is, any way so he gets it. 

Being thus roused the man does not seek to outdo his rival 
but grows heavily sad and thinks of death and his lost pleasures 
thus showing himself to be a person of discernment. For by so 
doing he gives evidence of a bastard sort of knowledge of that 
diversity of context in things and situations which the great 
masters of antiquity looked to for the inspiration and distinction 
of their compositions. 



IMPROVISATIONS 53 



X. 



If I could clap this in a cage and let that out we d see colored 
wings then to blind the sun but the good ships are anchored 
up-stream and the gorged seagulls flap heavily. At sea! At 
sea! That s where the waves beat kindliest. But no, singers 
are beggars or worse cannot man a ship songs are their trade. 
Ku-whee ! Ku-whee ! It s a wind in the lookout s nest talking 
of Columbus, whom no sea daunted, Columbus, chained below 
decks, bound homeward. 



They built a replica of Columbus flagship the Santa Maria 
and took it from harbor to harbor along the North Atlantic sea 
board. The insignificance of that shell could hardly be exagger 
ated when comparison was made with even the very least of our 
present day sea-going vessels. Thus was the magnificence of 
enterprise and the hardihood of one Christopher Columbus cele 
brated at this late date. 



You would learn if you knew even one city where people 
are a little gathered together and where one sees it s our fron 
tier you know the common changes of the human spirit: our 
husbands tire of us and we let us not say we go hungry for their 
caresses but for caresses of a kind. Oh I am no prophet. I 
have no theory to advance, except that it s well nigh impossible 
to know the wish till after. Cross the room to him if the whim 
leads that way. Here s drink of an eye that calls you. No need 
to take the thing too seriously. It s something of a will-o-the- 
whisp I acknowledge. All in the pressure of an arm through a 
fur coat often. Something of a dancing light with the rain 
beating on a cab window. Here s nothing to lead you astray. 
What? Why you re young still. Your children? Yes, there 
they are. Desire skates like a Hollander as well as runs picka 
ninny fashion. Really, there s little more to say than : flowers in 
a glass basket under the electric glare ; the carpet is red, mostly, a 
hodge-podge of zig-zags that pass for Persian fancies. Risk a 
double entendre. But of a sudden the room s not the same! 
It s a strange blood sings under some skin. Who will have the 



54 IMPROVISATIONS 

sense for it? The men sniff suspiciously; you at least my dear 
had your head about you. It was a tender nibble but it really did 
you credit. But think of what might be! It s all in the imag 
ination. I give you no more credit than you deserve, you will 
never rise to it, never be more than a rose dropped in the river 
but acknowledge that there is, ah there is a You are such 
a clever knitter. Your hands please. Ah, if I had your hands. 



A woman of marked discernment finding herself among 
strange companions wishes for the hands of one of them and 
inasmuch as she feels herself refreshed by the sight of these 
perfections she offers in return those perfections of her own 
which appear to her to be most appropriate to the occasion. 



Truth s a wonder. What difference is it how the best head 
we have greets his first born these days ? What weight has it that 
the bravest hair of all s gone waiting on cheap tables or the most 
garrulous lives lonely by a bad neighbor and has her south 
windows pestered with caterpillars ? The nights are long for lice 
combing or moon dodging and the net comes in empty again. 
Or there s been no fish in this fiord since Christian was a baby. 
Yet up surges the good zest and the game s on. Follow at my 
heels, there s little to tell you you ld think a stoopsworth. You ld 
pick the same faces in a crowd no matter what I d say. And 
you ld be right too. The path s not yours till you ve gone it alone 
a time. But here s another handful of west wind. White of 
the night ! White of the night. Turn back till I tell you a puz 
zle: What is it in the stilled face of an old mender-man and 
winter not far off and a darky parts his wool, and wenches wear 
of a Sunday? It s a sparrow with a crumb in his beak dodging 
wheels and clouds crossing two ways. 



Virtue is not to be packed in a bag and carried off to the rag 
mill. Perversions are righted and the upright are reversed, then 
the stream takes a bend upon itself and the meaning turns a livid 
purple and drops down in a whirlpool without so much as fraying 
a single fibre. 



IMPROVISATIONS 55 



XL 



Why pretend to remember the weather two years back? 
Why not? Listen close then repeat after others what they have 
just said and win a reputation for vivacity. Oh feed upon petals 
of aedelweis ! one dew drop, if it be from the right flower, is five 
year s drink! 



Having once taken the plunge the situation that preceded 
it becomes obsolete which a moment before was alive with 
malignant rigidities. 

2 

When beldams dig clams their fat hams (it s always bel 
dams) balanced near Tellus hide, this rhinoceros pelt, these 
lumped stones buffoonery of midges on a bull s thigh invoke, 
what you will : birth s glut, awe at God s craft, youth s poverty, 
evolution of a child s caper, man s poor inconsequence. Eclipse 
of all things ; sun s self turned hen s rump. 

3 

Cross a knife and fork and listen to the church bells ! It is 
the harvest moon s made wine of our blood. Up over the dark 
factory into the blue glare start the young poplars. They whis 
per : It is Sunday ! It is Sunday ! But the laws of the county 
have been stripped bare of leaves. Out over the marshes flickers 
our laughter. A lewd anecdote s the chase. On through the 
vapory heather ! And there at banter s edge the city looks at us 
sidelong with great eyes, lifts to its lips heavenly milk ! Lucina, 
O Lucina! beneficent cow, how have we offended thee? 



Hilariously happy because of some obscure wine of the fancy 
which they have drunk four rollicking companions take delight in 
the thought that they have thus evaded the stringent laws of the 
county. Seeing the distant city bathed in moonlight and staring 
seriously at them they liken the moon to a cow and its light to 
milk. 



5 6 IMPROVISATIONS 



XII. 



The browned trees are singing for my thirty- fourth birthday. 
Leaves are beginning to fall upon the long grass. Their cold 
perfume raises the anticipation of sensational revolutions in my 
unsettled life. Violence has begotten peace, peace has fluttered 
away in agitation. A bewildered change has turned among the 
roots and the Prince s kiss as far at sea as ever. 



To each age as to each person its perfections. But in these 
things there is a kind of revolutionary sequence. So that a man 
having lain at ease here and advanced there as time progresses 
the order of these things becomes inverted. Thinking to have 
brought all to one level the man finds his foot striking through 
where he had thought rock to be and stands firm where he had 
experienced only a bog hitherto. At a loss to free himself from 
bewilderment at this discovery he puts off the caress of the 
imagination. 

2 

The trick is never to touch the world anywhere. Leave 
yourself at the door, walk in, admire the pictures, talk a few 
words with the master of the house, question his wife a little, 
rejoin yourself at the door and go off arm in arm listening to 
last week s symphony played by angel hornsmen from the benches 
of a turned cloud. Or if dogs rub too close and the poor are too 
much out let your friend answer them. 



The poet being sad at the misery he has beheld that morning 
and seeing several laughing fellows approaching puts himself in 
their way in order to hear what they are saying. Gathering from 
their remarks that it is of some sharp business by which they have 
all made an inordinate profit, he allows his thoughts to play back 
upon the current of his own life. And imagining himself to be two 
persons he eases his mind by putting his burdens upon one while 
the other takes what pleasure there is before him. 



IMPROVISATIONS 57 

Something to grow used to ; a stone too big for ox haul, too 
near for blasting. Take the road round it or scrape away, 
scrape away : a mountain s buried in the dirt ! Marry a gopher 
to help you! Drive her in! Go yourself down along the lit 
pastures. Down, down. The whole family take shovels, babies 
and all! Down, down! Here s Tenochtitlan ! here s a strange 
Darien where worms are princes. 

3 

But for broken feet beating, beating on worn flagstones I 
would have danced to my knees at the fiddle s first run. But 
here s evening and there they scamper back of the world chasing 
the sun round! And it s daybreak in Calcutta! So lay aside, 
let s draw off from the town and look back awhile. See, there it 
rises out of the swamp and the mists already blowing their sleepy 
bagpipes. 



Often a poem will have merit because of some one line or 
even one meritorious word. So it hangs heavily on its stem but 
still secure, the tree unwilling to release it. 



5 8 IMPROVISATIONS 



XIII. 



Their half sophisticated faces gripe me in the belly. There s 
no business to be done with them either way. They re neither 
virtuous nor the other thing, between which exist no perfections. 
Oh, the mothers will explain that they are good girls. But these 
never guess that there s more sense in a sentence heard backward 
than forward most times. A country whose flowers are without 
perfume and whose girls lack modesty the saying goes . Dig 
deeper mon ami, the rock maidens are running naked in the 
dark cellars. 



In disgust at the spectacle of an excess of ripe flesh that, in 
accordance with the local custom of the place he is in, will be 
left to wither without ever achieving its full enjoyment, a young 
man of the place consoles himself with a vision of perfect beauty. 



I ll not get it no matter how I try. Say it was a girl in black 
I held open a street door for. Let it go at that. I saw a man an 
hour earlier I liked better much better. But it s not so easy 
to pass over. Perfection s not a thing you ll let slip so easily. 
What a body! The little flattened buttocks; the quiver of the 
flesh under the smooth fabric ! Agh, it isn t that I want to go 
to bed with you. In fact what is there to say? except the 
mind s a queer nereid sometimes and flesh is at least as good a 
gauze as words are: something of that. Something of mine 
yours hearts on sleaves? Ah zut what s the use? It s not 
that I ve lost her again either. It s hard to tell loss from gain 
anyway. 

3 

The words of the thing twang and twitter to the gentle rock 
ing of a high-laced boot and the silk above that. The trick of 
the dance is in following now the words, allegro, now the con 
trary beat of the glossy leg: Reaching far over as if But al 
ways she draws back and comes down upon the word flat footed. 



IMPROVISATIONS 59 

For a moment we but the boot s costly and the play s not mine. 
The pace leads off anew. Again the words break it and we both 
comes down flatfooted. Then near the knee, jumps to the eyes, 
catching in the hair s shadow. But the lips take the rhythm again 
and again we come down flatfooted. By this time boredom takes 
a hand and the play s ended. 



60 IMPROVISATIONS 



XIV. 



The brutal Lord of All will rip us from each other leave the 
one to suffer here alone. No need belief in god or hell to postu 
late that much. The dance: hands touching, leaves touching 
eyes looking, clouds rising- lips touching, cheeks touching, 
arms about . . . Sleep. Heavy head, heavy arm, heavy 
dream : Of Ymir s flesh the earth was made and of his 
thoughts were all the gloomy clouds created. Oya ! 



Out of bitterness itself the clear wine of the imagination 
will be pressed and the dance prosper thereby. 



To you ! whoever you are, wherever you are ! (But I know 
where you are!) There s Durer s "Nemesis" naked on her 
sphere over the little town by the river except she s too old. 
There s a dancing burgess by Tenier and Villon s maitress after 
he d gone bald and was shin pocked and toothless : she that had 
him ducked in the sewage drain. Then there s that miller s 
daughter of "buttocks broad and breastes high". Something of 
Nietzsche, something of the good Samaritan, something of the 
devil himself, can cut a caper of a fashion, my fashion ! Hey 
you, the dance! Squat. Leap. Hips to the left. Chin ha! 
sideways! Stand up, stand up ma bonne! you ll break my back 
bone. So again! and so forth till we re sweat soaked. 



Some fools once were listening to a poet reading his poem. 
It so happened that the words of the thing spoke of gross matters 
of the everyday world such as are never much hidden from a 
quick eye. Out of these semblances, and borrowing certain 
members from fitting masterpieces of antiquity, the poet began 
piping up his music, simple fellow, thinking to please his listeners. 
But they getting the whole matter sadly muddled in their minds 



IMPROVISATIONS 61 

made such a confused business of listening that not only were 
they not pleased at the poet s exertions but no sooner had he done 
than they burst out against him with violent imprecations. 



It s all one. Richard worked years to conquer the descend 
ing cadence, idiotic sentimentalist. Ha, for happiness! This 
tore the dress in ribbons from her maid s back and not spared the 
nails either ; wild anger spit from her pinched eyes ! This is the 
better part. Or a child under a table to be dragged out coughing 
and biting, eyes glittering evilly. I ll have it my way! Nothing 
is any pleasure but misery and brokeness. THIS is the only up- 
cadence. This is where the secret rolls over and opens its eyes. 
Bitter words spoken to a child ripple in morning light ! Boredom 
from a bedroom doorway thrills with anticipation! The com 
plaints of an old man dying piecemeal are starling chirrups. 
Coughs go singing on springtime paths across a field; corruption 
picks strawberries and slow warping of the mind, blacking the 
deadly walls counted and recounted rolls in the grass and 
shouts ecstatically. All is solved! The moaning and dull sob 
bing of infants sets blood tingling and eyes ablaze to listen. 
Speed sings in the heels at long nights tossing on coarse sheets 
with burning sockets staring into the black. Dance! Sing! 
Coil and uncoil! Whip yourselves about! Shout the deliver- 
ence ! An old woman has infected her blossomy grand-daughter 
with a blood illness that every two weeks drives the mother into 
hidden songs of agony, the pad-footed mirage of creeping death 
for music. The face muscles keep pace. Then a darting about 
the compass in a tarantelle that wears flesh from bones. Here is 
dancing ! The mind in tatters. And so the music wistfully takes 
the lead. Aye de mi, Juana la Loca, reina de Espagna, esa esta 
tu canto, reina mia! 



62 IMPROVISATIONS 



XV. 



N! cha! cha! cha! destiny needs men, so make up 
your mind. Here s an oak filling the wind s space. Out with 
him! 

By carefully prepared stages come down through the 
vulgarities of a cupiscent girlhood to the barren distinction of 
this cold six A. M. Her pretty, pinched face is a very simple 
tune but it carries now a certain quasi-maidenly distinction. It s 
not at least what you d have heard six years back when she was 
really virgin. 



Often when the descent seems well marked there will be a 
subtle ascent over-ruling it so that in the end when the degrada 
tion is fully anticipated the person will be found to have emerged 
upon a hilltop. 

2 

Such an old sinner knows the lit-edged clouds. No spring 
days like those that come in October. Strindberg had the eyes 
for Swan White ! So make my bed with yours, tomorrow . . . ? 
Tomorrow . . . the hospital. 



Seeing his life at an end a miserable fellow f much accus 
tomed to evil, wishes for the companionship of youth and beauty 
before he dies and in exchange thinks to proffer that praise which 
due to the kind of life he has led he is most able to give. 

3 

Here s a new sort of April clouds: whiffs of dry snow on 
the polished roadway that, curled by the wind, lie in feathery 
figures. Oh but April s not to be hedged that simply. She was 
a Scotch lady and made her own butter and they grew their own 
rye. It was the finest bread I ever tasted. And how we used to 
jump in the hay! When he lost his money she kept a boarding 



IMPROVISATIONS 63 

house . . But this is nothing to the story that should have been 
written could he have had time to jot it all down : of how Bertha s 
lips are turned and her calf also and how she weighs 118 pounds. 
Do I think that is much? Hagh! And her other perfections. 
Ruin the girl? Oh there are fifty niceties that being virtuous, 
oh glacially virtuous one might consider, i.e. whose touch is the 
less venomous and by virtue of what sanction? Love, my good 
friends has never held sway in more than a heart or two here and 
there since ? All beauty stands upon the edge of the deflower 
ing. I confess I wish my wife younger. This is the lewdest 
thought possible: it makes mockery of the spirit, say you? 
Solitary poet who speaks his mind and has not one fellow in a 
virtuous world! I wish for youth! I wish for love ! I see 
well what passes in the street and much that passes in the mind. 
You ll say this has nothing in it of chastity. Ah well, chastity 
is a lily of the valley that only a fool would mock. There is no 
whiter nor no sweeter flower but once past, the rankest stink 
comes from the soothest petals. Heigh-ya! A crib from our 
mediaeval friend Shakespeare. 



That which is heard from the lips of those to whom we are 
talking in our day s-aff airs mingles with what we see in the streets 
and everywhere about us as it mingles also with our imaginations. 
By this chemistry is fabricated a language of the day which shifts 
and reveals its meaning as clouds shift and turn in the sky and 
sometimes send down rain or snow or hail. This is the language 
to which few ears are tuned so that it is said by poets that few 
men are ever in their full senses since they have no way to use 
their imaginations. Thus to say that a man has no imagination 
is to say nearly that he is blind or deaf. But of old poets would 
translate this hidden language into a kind of replica of the speech 
of the world with certain distinctions of rhyme and meter to show 
that it was not really that speech. Nowadays the elements of 
that language are set down as heard and the imagination of the 
listener and of the poet are left free to mingle in the dance. 



64 IMPROVISATIONS 



XVI. 



Per le pillole d Ercole! I should write a happy poem tonight. 
It would have to do with a bare, upstanding fellow whose thighs 
bulge with a zest for say, a zest! He tries his arm. Flings a 
stone over the river. Scratches his bare back. Twirls his beard, 
laughs softly and stretches up his arms in a yawn. stops in 
the midst looking ! A white flash over against the oak stems ! 
Draws in his belly. Looks again. In three motions is near the 
stream s middle, swinging forward, hugh, hugh, hugh, hugh, 
blinking his eyes against the lapping wavelets ! Out ! and the 
sting of the thicket ! 



The poet transforms himself into a satyr and goes in pursuit 
of a white skinned dryad. The gaiety of his mood full of lusti- 
hood, even so, turns back with a mocking jibe. 



Giants in the dirt. The gods, the Greek gods, smothered 
in filth and ignorance. The race is scattered over the world. 
Where is its home? Find it if you ve the genius. Here Hebe 
with a sick jaw and a cruel husband, her mother left no place 
for a brain to grow. Herakles rowing boats on Berry s Creek! 
Zeus is a country doctor without a taste for coin jingling. Sup 
per is of a bastard nectar on rare nights for they will come 
the rare nights! The ground lifts and out sally the heroes of 
Sophocles, of JEschylus. They go seeping down into our hearts, 
they rain upon us and in the bog they sink again down through 
the white roots, down to a saloon back of the rail-road switch 
where they have that girl, you know, the one that should have 
been Venus by the lust that s in her. They ve got her down there 
among the railroad men. A crusade couldn t rescue her. Up to 
jail or call it down to Limbo the Chief of Police our Pluto. 
It s all of the gods, there s nothing else worth writing of. They 
are the same men they always were but fallen. Do they dance 
now, they that danced beside Helicon ? They dance much as they 
did then, only, few have an eye for it, through the dirt and 
fumes. 



IMPROVISATIONS 65 

When they came to question the girl before the local judge 
it was discovered that there were seventeen men more or less 
involved so that there was nothing to do but to declare the child 
a common bastard and send the girl about her business. Her 
mother took her in and after the brat died of pneumonia a year 
later she called in the police one day. An officer opened the 
bedroom door. The girl was in bed with an eighteenth fellow, 
a young roaming loafer with a silly grin to his face. They forced 
a marriage which relieved the mother of her burden. The girl 
was weak minded so that it was only with the greatest difficulty 
that she could cover her moves, in fact she never could do so with 
success. 

3 

Homer sat in a butcher s shop one rainy night and smelt 
fresh meat near him so he moved to the open window. It is 
infinitely important that I do what I well please in the world. 
What you please is that I please what you please but what I please 
is well rid of you before I turn off from the path into the field. 
What I am, why that they made me. What I do, why that I 
choose for myself. Reading shows, you say. Yes, reading 
shows reading. What you read is what they think and what they 
think is twenty years old or twenty thousand and it s all one to 
the little girl in the pissoir. Likewise to me. But the butcher 
was a friendly fellow so he took the carcass outside thinking 
Homer to be no more than any other beggar. 



A man s carcass has no more distinction than the carcass 
of an ox. 



66 IMPROVISATIONS 



XVII. 



Little round moon up there wait awhile do not walk so 
quickly. I could sing you a song : Wine clear the sky is and 
the stars no bigger than sparks! Wait for me and next winter 
we ll build a fire and shake up twists of sparks out of it and you 
shall see yourself in the ashes, young as you were one time. 



// has always been the fashion to talk about the moon. 



This that I have struggled against is the very thing I should 
have chosen but all s right now. They said I could not put the 
flower back into the stem nor win roses upon dead briars and I 
like a fool believed them. But all s right now. Weave away, 
dead fingers, the darkies are dancing in Mayaguez all but one 
with the sore heel and sugar cane will soon be high enough to 
romp through. Haia! leading over the ditches, with your skirts 
flying and the devil in the wind back of you no one else. 
Weave away and the bitter tongue of an old woman is eating, 
eating, eating venomous words with thirty years mould on them 
and all shall be eaten back to honeymoon s end. Weave and 
pangs of agony and pangs of loneliness are beaten backward into 
the love kiss, weave and kiss recedes into kiss and kisses into 
looks and looks into the heart s dark and over again and over 
again and time s pushed ahead in spite of all that. The petals 
that fell bearing me under are lifted one by one. That which 
kissed my flesh for priest s lace so that I could not touch it 
weave and you have lifted it and I am glimpsing light chinks 
among the notes ! Backward, and my hair is crisp with purple 
sap and the last crust s broken. 



A woman on the verge of growing old kindles in the mind of 
her son a certain curiosity which spinning upon itself catches the 



IMPROVISATIONS 67 

woman herself in Us wheel, stripping from her the accumulations 
of many harsh years and shows her at last full of an old time 
suppleness hardly to have been guessed by the stiffened exterior 
which had held her fast till that time. 



Once again the moon in a glassy twilight. The gas jet in 
the third floor window is turned low, they have not drawn the 
shade, sends down a flat glare upon the lounge s cotton-Persian 
cover where the time passes with clumsy caresses. Never in 
this millieu has one stirred himself to turn up the light. It is 
costly to leave a jet burning at all. Feel your way to the bed. 
Drop your clothes on the floor and creep in. Flesh becomes so 
accustomed to the touch she will not even waken. And so 
hours pass and not a move. The room too falls asleep and the 
street outside falls mumbling into a heap of black rags morn 
ing s at seven 



Seeing a light in an upper window the poet by means of the 
power he has enters the room and of what he sees there brews 
himself a sleep potion. 



68 IMPROVISATIONS 



XVIII. 



How deftly we keep love from each other. It is no trick at 
all: the movement of a cat that leaps a low barrier. You have 
if the truth be known loved only one man and that was before 
my time. Past him you have never thought nor desired to think. 
In his perfections you are perfect. You are likewise perfect in 
other things. You present to me the surface of a marble. And 
I, we will say, loved also before your time. Put it quite 
obscenely. And I have my perfections. So here we present 
ourselves to each other naked. What have we effected ? Say 
we have aged a little together and you have borne children. We 
have in short thriven as the world goes. We have proved fertile. 
The children are apparently healthy. One of them is even 
whimsical and one has an unusual memory and a keen eye. 
But It is not that we have not felt a certain rumbling, a certain 
stirring of the earth but what has it amounted to? Your first 
love and mine were of different species. There is only one way 
out. It is for me to take up my basket of words and for you to 
sit at your piano, each his own way, until I have, if it so be that 
good fortune smile my way, made a shrewd bargain at some fair 
and so by dint of heavy straining supplanted in your memory the 
brilliance of the old nrmhold. Which is impossible. Ergo: I 
am a blackguard. 



The act is disclosed by the imagination of it. But of first 
importance is to realize that the imagination leads and the deed 
comes behind. First Don Quixote then Sancho Panza. So that 
the act, to win its praise, will win it in diverse fashions according 
to the^ way the imagination has taken. Thus a harsh deed will 
sometimes win its praise through laughter and sometimes through 
savage mockery, and a deed of simple kindness will come to its 
reward through sarcastic comment. Each thing is secure in its 
own perfections. 

2 

After thirty years staring at one true phrase he discovered 
that its opposite was true also. For weeks he laughed in the grip 
of a fierce self derision. Having lost the falsehood to which he d 



IMPROVISATIONS 69 

fixed his hawser he rolled drunkenly about the field of his 
environment before the new direction began to dawn upon his 
cracked mind. What a fool ever to be tricked into seriousness. 
Soft hearted, hard hearted. Thick crystals began to shoot 
through the liquid of his spirit. Black, they were: branches that 
have lain in a fog which now a wind is blowing away. Things 
move. Fatigued as you are watch how the mirror sieves out the 
extraneous : in sleep as in waking. Summoned to his door by a 
tinkling bell he looked into a white face, the face of a man 
convulsed with dread, saw the laughter back of its drawn alert 
ness. Out in the air: the sidesplitting burlesque of a sparkling 
midnight stooping over a little house on a sandbank. The city at 
the horizon blowing a lurid red against the flat cloud. The moon 
masquerading for a tower clock over the factory, its hands in a 
gesture that, were time real, would have settled all. But the 
delusion convulses the leafless trees with the deepest appreciation 
of the mummery : insolent poking of a face upon the half-lit win 
dow from which the screams burst. So the man alighted in the 
great silence, with a myopic star blinking to clear its eye over his 
hat top. He comes to do good. Fatigue tickles his calves and 
the lower part of his back with solicitous fingers, strokes his feet 
and his knees with appreciative charity. He plunges up the dark 
steps on his grotesque deed of mercy. In his warped brain an 
owl of irony fixes on the immediate object of his care as if it 
were the thing to be destroyed, guffaws at the impossibility of 
putting any kind of value on the object inside or of even reversing 
or making less by any other means than induced sleep which is 
no solution the methodical gripe of the sufferer. Stupidity 
couched in a dingy room beside the kitchen. One room stove- 
hot, the next the dead cold of a butcher s ice box. The man 
leaned and cut the baby from its stem. Slop in disinfectant, roar 
with derision at the insipid blood stench: hallucination comes to 
the rescue on the brink of seriousness: the gas-stove flame is 
starblue, violets back of L Orloge at Lancy. The smile of a 
spring morning trickles into the back of his head and blinds the 
eyes to the irritation of the poppy red flux. A cracked window 
blind lets in Venus. Stars. The hand-lamp is too feeble to have 
its own way. The vanity of their neck stretching, trying to be 
large as a street-lamp sets him roaring to himself anew. And 
rubber gloves, the color of moist dates, the identical glisten and 
texture : means a ballon trip to Fez. So one is a ridiculous savior 



TO IMPROVISATIONS 

of the poor, with fatigue always at his elbow with a new jest, 
the newest smutty story, the prettiest defiance of insipid pretences 
that cannot again assert divine right nonsensical gods that are 
fit to lick shoes clean : and the great round face of Sister Palagia 
straining to keep composure against the jaws of a body louse. 
In at the back door. We have been a benefactor. The cross 
laughter has been denied us but one cannot have more than the 
appetite sanctions. 

3 

Awake early to the white blare of a sun flooding in sidewise. 
Strip and bathe in it. Ha, but an ache tearing at your throat and 
a vague cinema lifting its black moon blot all out. There s no 
walking barefoot in the crisp leaves nowadays. There s no 
dancing save in the head s dark. Go draped in soot; call on 
modern medicine to help you: the coal man s blowing his thin 
dust up through the house ! Why then, a new step lady ! I ll 
meet you you know where o the dark side! Let the wheel 
click. " 



In the mind there is a continual play of obscure images which 
coming between the eyes and their prey seem pictures on the 
screen at the movies. Somewhere there appears to be a mal 
adjustment. The wish would be to see not floating visions of 
unknown purport but the imaginative qualities of the actual 
things being perceived accompany their gross vision in a slow 
dance, interpreting as they go. But inasmuch as this will not 
always be the case one must dance nevertheless as he can. 



IMPROVISATIONS 71 



XIX. 



Carry clapping bundles of lath-strips, adjust, dig, saw on a 
diagonal, hammer a thousand ends fast and discover afterward 
the lattice-arbor top s two clean lines in a dust of dew. There are 
days when leaves have knife s edges and one sees only eye-pupils, 
fixes every catchpenny in a shop window and every wire against 
the sky but goes puzzled from vista to vista in his own house 
staring under beds for God knows what all. 



A lattice screen say fifty feet long by seven high, such a 
thing as is built to cut off some certain part of a yard from 
public mew, is surprisingly expensive to put up. The wooden 
strips alone, if they are placed at all close together must be 
figured solid, as if it were a board fence. Then there are the 
posts, the frames, the trimming, the labor and last of all the two 
coats of paint. Is it a wonder the artisan cannot afford more 
than the luxury of these calculations. 



Imperceptibly your self shakes free in all its brutal signifi 
cance, feels its subtle power renewed and abashed at its covered 
lustihood breaks to the windows and draws back before the 
sunshine it sees there as before some imagined figure that would 
be there if ah if But for a moment your hand rests upon the 
palace window sill, only for a moment. 

3 

It is not fair to be old, to put on a brown sweater. It is not 
just to walk out of a November evening bare headed and with 
white hair in the wind. Oh the cheeks are ruddy enough and the 
grin broad enough, it s not that. Worse is to ride a wheel, a 
glittering machine that runs without knowing to move. It is no 
part of the eternal truth to wear white canvas shoes and a pink 
coat. It is a damnable lie to be fourteen. The curse of God is 
on her head! Who can speak of justice when young men wear 



72 IMPROVISATIONS 

round hats and carry bundles wrapped in paper. It is a case for 
the supreme court to button a coat in the wind, no matter how 
icy. Lewd to touch an arm at a crossing; the shame of it 
screams to the man in a window. The horrible misery brought on 
by the use of black shoes is more than the wind will ever swallow. 
To move at all is worse than murder, worse than Jack the Ripper. 
It s lies, walking, spitting, breathing, coughing lies that bloom, 
shine sun, shine moon. Unfair to see or be seen, snatch-purses 
work. Eat hands full of ashes, angels have lived on it time with 
out end. Are you better than an angel? Let judges giggle to 
each other over their benches and use dirty towels in the ante 
room. Gnaw, gnaw, gnaw ! at the heads of felons . . . There 
was a baroness lived in Hungary bathed twice monthly in virgin s 
blood. 



A mother will love her children most grotesquely. I do not 
mean by that more than the term "perversely" perhaps more 
accurately describes. Oh I mean the most commonplace of 
mothers. She will be most willing toward that daughter who 
thwarts her most and not toward the little kitchen helper. So 
where one is mother to any great number of people he will love 
best perhaps some child whose black and peculiar hair is an exact 
replica of that of the figure in Velasques , Infanta Maria Theresa 
or some Italian matron whose largeness of manner takes in the 
whole street. These things relate to inner perfections which it 
would be profitless to explain. 



IMPROVISATIONS 73 



XX. 



Where does this downhill turn up again? Driven to the 
wall you d put claws to your toes and make a ladder of smooth 
bricks. But this, this scene shifting that has clipped the clouds 
stems and left them to flutter down; heaped them at the feet, so 
much hay, so much bull s fodder. (Au moins, you cannot deny 
you have the clouds to grasp now, mon ami !) Climb now ? The 
wall s clipped off too, only its roots are left. Come, here s an 
iron hoop from a barrel once held nectar to gnaw spurs out of. 



You cannot hold spirit round the arms but it takes lies for 
wings, turns poplar leaf and flutters off leaving the old stalk 
desolate. There s much pious pointing at the sky but on the 
other side few know how youth s won again, the pesty spirit shed 
each ten years for more skin room. And who ll say what s pious 
or not pious or how I ll sing praise to God? Many a morning, 
were t not for a cup of coffee, a man would be lonesome enough 
no matter how his child gambols. And for the boy? There s no 
craft in him; it s this or that, the thing s done and tomorrow s 
another day. But if you push him too close, try for the 
butterflies, you ll have a devil at the table. 

3 

One need not be hopelessly cast down because he cannot cut 
onyx into a ring to fit a lady s finger. You hang your head. 
There is neither onyx nor porphyry on these roads only brown 
dirt. For all that, one may see his face in a flower along it 
even in this light. Eyes only and for a flash only. Oh, keep the 
neck bent, plod with the back to the split dark! Walk in the 
curled mudcrusts to one side, hands hanging. Ah well . . 
Thoughts are trees ! Ha, ha, ha, ha ! Leaves load the branches 
and upon them white night sits kicking her heels against the stars. 



A poem can be made of anything. This is a portrait of a 
disreputable farm hand made out of the stuff of his environment. 



74 IMPROVISATIONS 



XXI. 



There s the bathtub. Look at it, caustically rejecting its 
smug proposal. Ponder removedly the herculean task of a bath. 
There s much cameraderie in filth but it s no that. And change 
is lightsome but it s not that either. Fresh linen with a dab here, 
there of the wet paw serves me better. Take a stripling stroking 
chin-fuzz, match his heart against that of grandpa watching his 
silver wane. When these two are compatible I ll plunge in. 
But where s the edge lifted between sunlight and moonlight. 
Where does lamplight cease to nick it? Here s hot water. 



It is the mark of our civilization that all houses today include 
a room for the relief and washing of the body, a room ingeniously 
appointed with water-vessels of many and curious sorts. There 
is nothing in antiquity to equal this. 



Neatness and finish; the dust out of every corner! You 
swish from room to room and find all perfect. The house may 
now be carefully wrapped in brown paper and sent to a publisher. 
It is a work of art. You look rather askance at me. Do not 
believe I cannot guess your mind, yet I have my studies. You 
see, when the wheel s just at the up turn it glimpses horizon, 
zenith, all in a burst, the pull of the earth shaken off, a scatter 
of fragments, significance in a burst of water striking up from 
the base of a fountain. Then at the sickening turn toward death 
the pieces are joined into a pretty thing, a bouquet frozen in an 
ice-cake. This is art, mon cher, a thing to carry up with you 
on the next turn; a very small thing, inconceivably feathery. 



Live as they will together a husband and wife give each 
other many a sidelong glance at unlikely moments. Each 
watches the other out of the tail of his eye. Always it seems 



IMPROVISATIONS 75 

some drunkeness is waiting to unite them. First one then the 
other empties some carafe of spirits forgetting that two lumps of 
earth are neither wiser nor sadder .... A man watches his 
wife clean house. He is filled with knowledge by his wife s 
exertions. This is incomprehensible to her. Knowing she will 
never understand his excitement he consoles himself with the 
thought of art. 

3 

The pretension of these doors to broach or to conclude our 
pursuits, our meetings, of these papered walls to separate our 
thoughts of impossible tomorrows and these ceilings that are a 
jest at shelter . . It is laughter gone mad of a holiday that 
has frozen into this what shall I say? Call it, this house of 
ours, the crystal itself of laughter, thus peaked and faceted. 



// is a popular superstition that a house is somehow the 
possession of the man who lives in it. But a house has no relation 
whatever to anything but itself. The architect feels the rhythm 
of the house drawing his mind into opaque partitions in which 
doors appear, then windows and so on until out of the vague or 
clearcut mind of the architect the ill-built or deftly-built house 
has been empowered to draw stone and timbers into a foreap- 
pointed focus. If one shut the door of a house he is to that 
extent a carpenter. 

Coda 

Outside, the north wind, coming and passing, swelling and 
dying, lifts the frozen sand drives it arattle against the lidless 
windows and we my dear sit stroking the cat stroking the 
cat and smiling sleepily, prrrrr. 



A house is sometimes wine. It is more than a skin. The 
young pair listen attentively to the roar of the weather. The 
blustering cold takes on the shape of a destructive presence. 
They loosen their imaginations. The house seems protecting 
them. They relax gradually as though in the keep of a bene 
volent protector. Thus the house becomes a wine which has 
drugged them out of their senses. 



76 IMPROVISATIONS 



XXII. 



This is a slight stiff dance to a waking baby whose arms 
have been lying curled back above his head upon the pillow, 
making a flower the eyes closed. Dead to the world ! Waking 
is a little hand brushing away dreams. Eyes open. Here s a 
new world. 



There is nothing the sky-serpent will not eat. Sometimes it 
stoops to gnaw Fujiyama, sometimes to slip its long and softly 
clasping tongue about the body of a sleeping child who smiles 
thinking its mother is lifting it. 



Security, solidity we laugh at them in our clique. It is 
tobacco to us, this side of her leg. We put it in our samovar and 
make tea of it. You see the stuff has possibilities. You think 
you are opposing the rich but the truth is you* re turning toward 
authority yourself, to say nothing of religion. No, I do not say 
it means nothing. Why everything is nicely adjusted to our 
moods. But I would rather describe to you what I saw in the 
kitchen last night overlook the girl a moment: there over the 
sink (i) this saucepan holds all, (2) this colander holds most, 
(3) this wire sieve lets most go and (4) this funnel holds 
nothing. You appreciate the progression. What need then to 
be always laughing? Quit phrase making that is, not of course 
but you will understand me or if not why come to break 
fast sometime around evening on the fourth of January any year 
you please ; always be punctual where eating is concerned. 



My little son s improvisations exceed mine: a round stone 
to him s a loaf of bread or (< this hen could lay a dozen golden 
eggs". Birds fly about his bedstead; giants lean over him with 
hungry jaws; bears roam the farm by summer and are killed and 
quartered at a thought. There are interminable stories at eating 



IMPROVISATIONS 77 

time full of bizarre imagery, true grotesques, pigs that change to 
dogs in the telling, cows that sing, roosters that become mountains 
and oceans that fill a soup plate. There are groans and growls, 
dun clouds and sunshine mixed in a huge phantasmagoria that 
never rests, never ceases to unfold into the days poor little 
happenings. Not that alone. He has music which I have not. 
His tunes follow no scale, no rhythm alone the mood in odd 
ramblings up and down, over and over with a rigor of invention 
that rises beyond the power to follow except in some more 
obvious flight. Never have I heard so crushing a critique as 
those desolate inventions, involved half-hymns, after his first 
visit to a Christian Sunday school. 

3 

This song is to Phyllis! By this deep snow I know it s 
springtime, not ring time ! Good God no ! The screaming brat s 
a sheep bleating, the rattling crib-side sheep shaking a bush. We 
are young! We are happy! says Colin. What s an icy room 
and the sun not up? This song is to Phyllis. Reproduction let s 
death in, says Joyce. Rot, say I. To Phyllis this song is ! 



That which is known has value only by virtue of the dark. 
This cannot be otherwise. A thing known passes out of the mind 
into the muscles, the will is quit of it, save only when set into 
vibration by the forces of darkness opposed to it. 



7 8 IMPROVISATIONS 



XXIII. 



Baaaa! Ba-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha ! Bebe esa purga. It is 
the goats of Santo Domingo talking. Bebe esa purga! 
Bebeesapurga ! And the answer is : Yo no lo quiero beber! 
Yonoloquierobeber ! 



It is nearly pure luck that gets the mind turned inside out 
in a work of art. There is nothing more difficult than to write 
a poem. It is something of a matter of slight of hand. The 
poets of the T ang dynasty or of the golden age in Greece or even 
the Elizabethans: it s a kind of alchemy of form, a deft bottling 
of a fermenting language. Take Dante and his Tuscan dialect 
It s a matter of position. The empty form drops from a cloud, 
like a gourd from a vine; into it the poet packs his phallus-like 
argument. 



The red huckleberry bushes running miraculously along the 
ground among the trees everywhere, except where the land s 
tilled, these keep her from that tiredness the earth s touch lays up 
under the soles of feet. She runs beyond the wood follows the 
swiftest along the roads laughing among the birch clusters her 
face in the yellow leaves the curls before her eyes her mouth 
half open. This is a person in particular there where they have 
her and I have only a wraith in the birch trees. 



It is not the lusty bodies of the nearly naked girls in the 
shows about town, nor the blare of the popular tunes that make 
money for the manager. The girls can be procured rather more 
easily in other ways and the music is dirt cheap. It is that this 
meat is savored with a strangeness which never looses its fresh 
taste to generation after generation, either of dancers or those 
who watch. It is beauty escaping, spinning up over the heads, 
blown out at the overtaxed vents by the electric fans. 



IMPROVISATIONS 79 



In many poor and sentimental households it is a custom to 
have cheap prints in glass frames upon the walls. These are of 
all sorts and many sizes and may be found in any room from the 
kitchen to the toilet. The drawing is always of the worst and the 
colors, not gaudy but almost always of faint indeterminate tints, 
are infirm. Yet a delicate accuracy exists between these prints 
and the environment which breeds them. But as if to intensify 
this relationship words are added. There will be a sentiment" 
as it is called, a rhyme, which the picture illuminates. Many of 
these pertain to love. This is well enough when the bed is new 
and the young couple spend the long winter nights there in 
delightful seclusion. But childbirth follows in its time and a 
motto still hangs above the bed. It is only then that the full 
ironical meaning of these prints leaves the paper and the frame 
and starting through the glass takes undisputed sway over the 
household. 



8o IMPROVISATIONS 



XXIV. 



I like the boy. It s years back I began to draw him to me 
or he was pushed my way by the others. And what if there s 
no sleep because the bed s burning ; is that a reason to send a chap 
to Grey stone ! Greystone ! There s a name if you ve any tatter 
of mind left in you. It s the long back, narrowing that way at 
the waist perhaps whets the chisel in me. How the flanks flutter 
and the heart races. Imagination! That s the worm in the 
apple. What if it run to paralyses and blind fires, here s sense 
loose in a world set on foundations. Blame buzzards for the eyes 
they have. 



Buzzards, granted their disgusting habit in regard to meat, 
have eyes of a power equal to that of the eagles . 



Five miscarriages since January is a considerable record 
Emily dear but hearken to me : The Pleiades that small cluster 
of lights in the sky there . You d better go on in the house 
before you catch cold. Go on now ! 



Carelessness of heart is a virtue akin to the small lights of 
the stars. But it is sad to see virtues in those who have not the 
gift of the imagination to value them. 

Damn me I feel sorry for them. Yet syphilis is no more 
than a wild pink in the rock s cleft. I know that. Radicals and 
capitalists doing a can-can tread the ground clean. Luck to the 
feet then. Bring a Russian to put a fringe to the rhythm. What s 
the odds? Commiseration cannot solve calculus. Calculus is a 
stone. Frost ll crack it. Till then, there s many a good back- 
road among the clean raked fields of hell where autumn flowers 
are blossoming. 



IMPROVISATIONS 81 

Pathology literally speaking is a flower garden. Syphilis 
covers the body with salmon-red petals. The study of medicine 
is an inverted sort of horticulture. Over and above all this floats 
the philosophy of disease which is a stern dance. One of its 
most delightful gestures is bringing flowers to the sick. 

3 

For a choice? Go to bed at three in the afternoon with 
your clothes on: dreams for you! Here s an old bonnefemme 
in a pokebonnet staring into the rear of a locomotive. Or if 
this prove too difficult take a horse-drag made of green limbs, a 
kind of leaf cloth. Up the street with it! Ha, how the tar 
clings. Here s glee for the children. All s smeared. Green s 
black. Leap like a devil, clap hands and cast around for more. 
Here s a pine wood driven head down into a mud-flat to build a 
school on. Oh la, la! sand pipers made mathematicians at the 
state s cost. 



82 IMPROVISATIONS 



XXV. 



There s force to this cold sun, makes beard stubble stand 
shinily. We look, we pretend great things to our glass rubbing 
our chin: This is a profound comedian who grimaces deeds into 
slothful breasts. This is a sleepy president, without followers 
save oak leaves but their coats are of the wrong color. This 
is a farmer plowed a field in his dreams and since that time- 
goes stroking the weeds that choke his furrows. This is a poet 
left his own country 



The simple expedient of a mirror has practical use for 
arranging the hair, for observation of the set of a coat, etc. But 
as an exercise for the mind the use of a mirror cannot be too 
highly recommended. Nothing of a mechanical nature could be 
more conducive to that elasticity of the attention which frees 
the mind for the enjoyment of its special prerogatives. 



A man can shoot his spirit up out of a wooden house, that 
is, through the roof the roof s slate but how far? It is of 
final importance to know that. To say the world turns under my 
feet and that I watch it passing with a smile is neither the truth 
nor my desire. But I would wish to stand you ve seen the 
kingfisher do it where the largest town might be taken in my 
two hands, as high let us say as a man s head some one man 
not too far above the clouds. What would I do then? Oh I d 
hold my sleeve over the sun awhile to make church bells ring. 



It is obvious that if in flying an airplane one reached such 
an altitude that all sense of direction and every intelligible percep 
tion of the world were lost there would be nothing left to do but 
to come down to that point at which eyes regained their power. 

Towels will stay in a heap if the window s shut and oil 
in a bottle if the cork s there. But if the meat s not cut to suit 



IMPROVISATIONS 83 

it s no use rising before sun up, you ll never sweep the dust from 
these floors. Hide smiles among the tall glasses in the cupboard, 
come back when you think the trick s done and you ll find only 
dead flies there. It s beyond hope. You were not born of a 
Monday. 



There are divergences of humor that cannot be reconciled. 
A young woman of much natural grace of manner and very apt at 
a certain color of lie is desirous of winning the good graces of one 
only slightly her elder but nothing comes of her exertions. 
Instead of yielding to a superficial advantage she finally gives up 
the task and continues In her own delicate bias of peculiar and 
beautiful design much to the secret delight of the onlooker who 
Is thus regaled by the spectacle* of two exquisite and divergent 
natures playing one against the other. 

3 

Hark ! There s laughter ! These fight and draw nearer, 
we fight and draw apart. They know the things they say are 
true bothways, we miss the joke try to Oh, try to. Let it go 
at that. There again! Real laughter. At least we have each 
other in the ring of that music. "He saved a little then had to go 
and die". But isn t it the same with all of us? Not at all. 
Some laugh and laugh, with little grey eyes looking out through 
the chinks but not brown eyes rolled up in a full roar. One 
can t have everything. 



Going along an lllworn dirt road on the outskirts of a mill 
town one Sunday afternoon two lovers who have quarreled hear 
the loud cursing and shouts of drunken laborers and their women, 
followed by loud laughter and wish that their bodies were two 
fluids In the same vessel. Then they fall to twitting each other 
on the many ways of laughing. 



IMPROVISATIONS 



XXVI. 



Doors have a back side also. And grass blades are double- 
edged. It s no use trying to deceive me, leaves fall more by the 
buds that push them off than by lack of greenness. Or throw 
two shoes on the floor and see how they ll lie if you think it s 
all one way. 

2 

There is no truth sh ! but the honest truth and that is that 
touch-me-nots mean nothing, that daisies at a distance seem 
mushrooms and that your Japanese silk today was not the sky s 
blue but your pajamas now as you lean over the crib s edge 
are and day s in! Grassgreen the mosquito net caught over 
your head s butt for foliage. What else? except odors an old 
hallway. Moresco. Salvage. and a game of socker. I was 
too nervous and young to win that day. 

3 

All that seem solid: melancholias, idees fixes, eight years 
at the academy, Mr. Locke, this year and the next and the next 
one like another wheel they are April zephyrs, were one 
a Botticelli, between their chinks, pink anemones. 



Often it happens that in a community of no great distinction 
some fellow of superficial learning but great stupidity will seem 
to be rooted in the earth of the place the most solid figure 
imaginable impossible to remove him. 



IMPROVISATIONS 85 



XXVII. 



The particular thing, whether it be four pinches of four 
divers white powders cleverly compounded to cure surely, safely, 
pleasantly a painful twitching of the eyelids or say a pencil 
sharpened at one end, dwarfs the imagination, makes logic a 
butterfly, offers a finality that sends us spinning through space, a 
fixity the mind could climb forever, a revolving mountain, a com 
plexity with a surface of glass : the gist of poetry. D. C. al fin. 



There is no thing that with a twist of the imagination cannot 
be something else. Porpoises risen in a green sea, the wind at 
nightfall bending the rose-red grasses and you in your apron 
running to catch say it seems to you to be your son. How 
ridiculous ! You will pass up into a cloud and look back at me, 
not count the scribbling foolish that put wings to your heels, at 
your knees. 

3 

Sooner or later as with the leaves forgotten the swinging 
branch long since and summer : they scurry before a wind on the 
frost-baked ground have no place to rest somehow invoke a 
burst of warm days not of the past nothing decayed: crisp 
summer! neither a copse for resurrected frost eaters but a 
summer removed undestroyed a summer of dried leaves 
scurrying with a screech, to and fro in the half dark twittering, 
chattering, scraping. Hagh ! 



Seeing the leaves dropping from the high and low branches 
the thought rises: this day of all others is the one chosen, all 
other days fall away from it on either side and only itself remains 
in perfect fulness. It is its own summer, of its leaves as they 
scrape on the smooth ground it must build its perfection. The 
gross summer of the year is only a halting counterpart of those 
fiery days of secret triumph which in reality themselves paint the 






86 IMPROVISATIONS 

year as if upon a parchment, giving each season a mockery of the 
warmth or frozeness which is within ourselves. The true seasons 
blossom or wilt not in fixed order but so that many of them may 
pass in a few weeks or hours whereas sometimes a whole life 
passes and the season remains of a piece from one end to the 
other. 



THE END. 



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